Plaintiffs suing Metro Nashville Public Schools over the district’s recently adopted student assignment plan have added a Missouri attorney known for his victory in a well-known desegregation case.
But plaintiffs’ attorneys haven’t been able to land outside legal aid from a national organization such as the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, which a federal judge asked them to pursue earlier this month to boost their expert testimony. In addition, plaintiffs have reached out to the American Civil Liberties Union and the AFL-CIO, among others, but neither indicated it would assist in the case.
Local attorney Larry Woods, who has alleged Metro’s rezoning plan implemented in 2009 resegregated students along racial lines, updated a federal courtroom on the plaintiffs’ efforts last Thursday, one week after U.S. District Court Judge John Nixon said he wasn’t satisfied with the quality of their representation and requested they seek help. The judge has cited a disparity in resources between the plaintiffs and defendant Metro Nashville Public Schools, which is better funded.
Woods described how phone calls to national groups like the NAACP Legal Defense Fund haven’t produced headway, but said he is bringing on Kansas City-based attorney Arthur Benson, who made a name for himself by winning the famous desegregation case Missouri v. Jenkins. Benson, who Woods called “one of the leading desegregation lawyers in the nation,” is expected to visit Nashville this week.
“A lot of these national organizations have good intentions, but Nashville, Tennessee, is not on the top of their agenda list,” Woods told The City Paper. “I’m very pleased Mr. Benson wants to join. He’s litigated for the last 25 years with great success.”
Though the NAACP Legal Defense Fund hasn’t shown a willingness to get directly involved in Nashville’s suit, Woods said the organization has indicated it would consider serving as a catalyst for a settlement if the case were to steer in that direction.
“They basically said they would be interested in helping us facilitate a settlement,” Woods said. “We are continuing to pursue settlement conferences with the defendant.”
Woods, along with attorneys Allen Woods, his son, and Michael Lottman, represent plaintiffs Jeffrey and Frances Spurlock, who allege the district’s student assignment plan rezoned their African-daughter from a high-performing middle school in Bellevue to a low-performing, predominantly black school in North Nashville.
At last Thursday’s status conference, Metro attorney Kevin Klein expressed some frustration, arguing the defendants are already prepared with expert testimony and have followed the court’s timeline, while pointing out taxpayers are footing the bill as the case drags on. Klein also alerted the court to the number of outside organizations the plaintiffs have contacted, “all of whom said we don’t want this.”
“And the reason is that this isn’t the case that the [NAACP Legal Defense Fund] and other organizations want to hang their hat on because they don’t have a case,” Klein told the judge, according to a transcript prepared by a court reporter. “And these continued efforts speak volume.”
“With respect to Mr. Benson,” Klein told The City Paper, “we look forward to working with him. The fact remains, however, that we have a strong case and we’re ready for the next step in this litigation.”
In taking the unusual move to delay court proceedings to allow plaintiffs time to improve their representation, Nixon has highlighted the significance of the case.
“This is a case with public interest,” Nixon said. “If this had been a case that did not involve public interest, I would not have done what I did. But since it is an important case and it affects the people of Metropolitan Nashville Davidson County, I felt it was important to have both sides adequately prepared and to present a case to me so that I could make the proper judgment.”
Another status conference is set for Thursday, Jan. 27.