MANHATTAN (CN) — Slamming the East Ramapo School District for acting in bad faith throughout litigation, the Second Circuit affirmed Wednesday that at-large elections diluted minority votes for the Hudson Valley school board.
“The correlation between race and school attended in the District is near perfect: 92% of public school students are black or Latino, while 98% of private-school students are white,” U.S. Circuit Judge Rosemary Pooler wrote for a three-judge panel.
Joined by four voters, the Spring Valley chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People led the challenge to East Ramapo’s at-large voting system in November 2017.
They argued that the district’s practice allowing every voter to cast a vote for every board seat led to school boards dominated by white, Orthodox Jewish men who, for more than a decade, have supported budgets that siphon money from the district’s public schools, where Blacks and Latinos are the majority of students.
U.S. District Judge Cathy Seibel held a 17-day bench trial on the issue last year in White Plains, ultimately concluding that at-large elections had diluted the minority population’s vote in East Ramapo in violation of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Latham & Watkins attorney Charlie Dameron, representing the NAACP and the voter plaintiffs, lauded the appellate win Wednesday.
“Like the district court, the Second Circuit found that the District’s race-neutral justifications for its exclusionary policies were not persuasive and that the District acted in bad faith throughout the litigation to try and hide the true nature of minority voters’ exclusion from the political process,” he wrote Wednesday. “The Second Circuit’s decision is an important step in the restoration of minority voting rights in East Ramapo.”
Located about 45 minutes northwest of New York City, the East Ramapo district has 33,000 students, but only 9,000 of them attend its schools. The other 24,000 attend private yeshivas that cater to the communities of Orthodox Jewish villages and hamlets within the district’s borders. The student body is 98% white in the district’s private schools, but the public school population is over 90% Black, Latino and Haitian, reflecting the diversity of the surrounding communities.
Since the mid-2000s, these communities worked to elect a slate of candidates who favored lowering the taxes that funded the district’s budget and diverting resources from public schools toward services used by the district’s private school population.
“For too long, black and Latino voters in the district have been frustrated in that most fundamental and precious endeavor,” Judge Seibel, a George W. Bush appointee, wrote in May. “They, like their white neighbors, are entitled to have their voices heard.”
The district claimed on appeal that evidence of racial animus was lacking, but the Second Circuit ruled Wednesday the plaintiffs were not required to prove racial animus establish a vote-dilution claim under Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act.
“In sum, our precedent and the legislative history make manifest that Section 2 claims do not require a showing of racial causation,” the 69-page opinion states. “Racial causation is one factor, of many, to be considered when assessing the totality of the circumstances. The existence of such causation may be sufficient for a Section 2 violation, but it is not necessary.”
Judge Pooler was joined on the panel by U.S. Circuit Judge Denny Chin, a fellow Clinton appointee, and U.S. Circuit Judge Peter Hall, who was nominated by George W. Bush.
During oral arguments held remotely in August, the panel took note of evidence that the school district has acted in bad faith, citing the disingenuous statements from the school district’s witnesses at trial and the failure of its board members’ to give accurate settlement information to public school representatives.
Judge Seibel previously ordered a halt to East Ramapo’s practice of at-large elections and called for the district to hold all future school board elections using single-member districts in which voters may only vote for the candidates running in their ward.
Beginning with an upcoming special election on Feb. 2, 2021, voters are now each assigned to one of nine wards, including three wards where a majority of voters are black and/or Latino.
Counsel for the East Ramapo School District did not immediately respond to requests for comment Wednesday afternoon.