‘They Were Lying’: 2nd Circuit Raps School Board’s Witnesses

(Image by Yaffed, short for Young Advocates for Fair Education)

MANHATTAN (CN) — Alarmed by deceitful witness testimony from the trial, the Second Circuit sketched defeat Wednesday for a New York school board found to have used at-large elections dominated by an Orthodox Jewish political bloc to shut out minority voters.

“She found that they were lying,” said U.S. Circuit Judge Peter Hall, referring to U.S. District Judge Cathy Seibel’s appraisal of witnesses put forward a school board in East Ramapo, New York.

“She calls one the worst witnesses she’s ever seen, and she’s been around for quite a while,” Hall continued, speaking to the district’s attorney Randall Levine.

“Do those findings not matter?” the George W. Bush appointee asked. 

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 Orthodox Jewish community. While the student body is 98% white in the district’s private schools, the public school population is over 90 percent African-American, Latino and Haitian, reflecting the diversity of the surrounding communities .

Several Orthodox Jewish villages and hamlets are within the district’s borders. 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. 

Judge Seibel held a 17-day bench trial on the issue this year in White Plains, ultimately concluding that at-large elections had diluted the minority population’s vote in East Ramapo.

“For too long, black and Latino voters in the district have been frustrated in that most fundamental and precious endeavor,” the White Plains-based Seibel wrote in May. “They, like their white neighbors, are entitled to have their voices heard.” 

But the district claims on appeal that evidence of racial animus is lacking.

“If the private school community candidates are winning elections by large margins, that’s because their slate’s policies are more popular with more voters; it’s not because of race,” said Levine, an attorney with the Washington firm Morgan Lewis. “If public school candidates lose elections, it isn’t on account of race either; it is because there are fewer public school community voters.”

Regardless of the what Judge Seibel thought of the district’s witnesses, Levine said the she had to identify racial causation to find a violation of Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act.

To wit, he said, “the court expressly did not find it.”

“It said that there’s no evidence of racial animus motivating voters — and it doesn’t cleanse the court’s legal errors in its misapplication of the senate factors and it doesn’t cleanse the court’s legal error in simply ignoring the fact that, in this school district, there is a long history of minorities consistently being slated on both sides of the political divide in the district, minorities consistently being elected,” Levine added.

Latham & Watkins attorney Charlie Dameron, representing the NAACP and the voter plaintiffs, meanwhile urged the appeals panel to affirm.

“The district court engaged in extensive fact-finding regarding the election of minority candidates in this particular community and applied a well-established doctrine, the Safe Candidate doctrine, a special circumstances doctrine, to find that the election of those candidates was not evidence that minority voters have an equal say in the political process, an equal opportunity to participate in the political process and elect representatives of their choice,” he said. 

Six Orthodox Jewish men and three Black women sit on the board today. 

The Spring Valley Branch of the NAACP argue that the district’s at-large voting system disenfranchises black and Latino residents, whose children make up the bulk of the school district.  

“The toxic combination of an at-large election system and racially polarized voting, among other factors, has prevented candidates for the board preferred by minority voters from winning even a single contested election in the past decade,” they said in their 2017 complaint

Rather than the at-large voting system, the challengers argued for adoption of a ward system that would let voters choose representatives from geographically defined neighborhoods. 

When the case went to trial in February, the New York Civil Liberties Union blasted the system as allowing “the white community — which doesn’t send their kids to the public schools — to hijack the board and decimate the once highly acclaimed East Ramapo public school.”

“The board has slashed funding, cut essential school programs and services, and diverted millions of public-school funds to the nearly all-white private schools,” the NYCLU argued.

Suspending at-large elections, Seibel found East Ramapo’s minority population sufficiently large and geographically compact to constitute a majority in four single-member districts under a ward system.

East Ramapo’s attorney insisted Wednesday, however, at the Second Circuit’s 22-minute teleconference that the Safe Candidate doctrine was misapplied.

“The Safe Candidate doctrine allows for courts to disregard or discount aberrational minority victories, but there’s nothing aberrational about minorities winning elections in East Ramapo, they win all the time,” he said. 

Judge Hall was joined on the panel by Clinton-appointed Circuit Judges Rosemary Pooler and Denny Chin. They reserved their decision.

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