Gardendale School-Separation Arguments Going Before the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals Thursday

Gardendale school sits near the park in the heart of the community.

The latest step in the long-running effort by the city of Gardendale to form its own school system is a stop at the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta.

On Thursday morning, a panel of three judges will hear oral arguments in an appeal from attorneys for the Gardendale Board of Education, as well as a cross-appeal from the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund.

Both are appealing a ruling U.S. Circuit Judge Madeline Haikala issued in April, in which she determined that the city’s efforts to break away from the Jefferson County Schools was racially motivated. However, the ruling still allowed Gardendale to take control of the two elementary schools, with the provision that the city could take over Gardendale High and Bragg Middle schools some time later, after Haikala could determine that no racial discrimination of any kind was present.

Gardendale’s appeal says that Haikala should have given the city full control of all four schools from the start. The NAACP counters that her determination that racial motives were involved in the formation of the system precludes the courts from allowing the breakaway to take place at all.

The arguments will be made before a three-judge panel. The judges assigned to this case are:

  • Judge William H. Pryor Jr., a native of Mobile and the former Alabama attorney general. Pryor was appointed to the 11th Circuit in 2004 by President George W. Bush. Known as a political conservative, Pryor has a long history in the state; as attorney general, he recommended that then-Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore be removed from office for refusing to remove a monument of the Ten Commandments from the Supreme Court building. Pryor said that he personally agreed the monument should be displayed, but that the law did not. He prosecuted the case against Moore in the Alabama Court of the Judiciary, which forced Moore out of office. Moore later won another election as chief justice, but he was removed a second time for attempting to keep the state’s probate judges from approving same-sex marriages; he was again removed from office by the Court of the Judiciary.
  • Judge Jill Pryor (no relation to William Pryor), who hails from Pennsylvania, was appointed to the 11th Circuit in 2014 by President Barack Obama. She was first nominated in 2012, but Georgia’s two senators blocked her nomination by the “blue slip” procedure, and the nomination died without action when the Senate ended its session. Obama nominated her again in the next Senate session, and she eventually was approved.
  • Judge Raymond C. Clevenger III, a native of Topeka, Kansas, is a visiting senior-status member of the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, based in Washington, D.C. He was appointed to the bench by President George H.W. Bush in 1990.

Each appellant will have 15 minutes to present arguments, during which any of the judges may interrupt and ask questions. A decision will be handed down by the panel at a later date, likely after the new year. If either side disagrees with that ruling, they may ask the court to consider the case again in an en banc hearing before all 12 of the court’s judges. If that hearing were declined or resulted in an adverse ruling again, the final course of action would be an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The appeals are the latest event in the case of Stout vs. Jefferson County Board of Education, first filed in 1965, which resulted in the desegregation of county schools. Because no finding of “unitary status” has yet been made, which would indicate that full racial desegregation finally was in place, the federal courts still exercise authority over most major acts of the county school board.

Since that ruling, several suburban communities have broken away from JefCoEd, including Trussville, Hoover and Leeds. Gardendale officials first started the process of breaking away from JefCoEd five years ago, only to be stymied by legal action from the county system and the NAACP. When the Gardendale case was first heard in federal court, during the Obama administration, it also was opposed by the U.S. Department of Justice. But since the administration of President Donald Trump took over, with Alabama’s Jeff Sessions running the department as attorney general, the department has largely stayed on the sidelines.

Thursday’s hearing begins at 9 a.m. Eastern Time, which is 8 a.m. in Birmingham. It is the first of three hearings by the panel on the docket, and it is open to the public.