A desegregation lawsuit naming the Richmond County school system still open after nearly 49 years might soon be over.
In an uncommon judicial move, Senior U.S. District Court Judge Dudley H. Bowen Jr. has ordered the attorneys and parties involved to attend a hearing in the Augusta Judicial Center and John H. Ruffin Jr. Courthouse on June 17, the anniversary of the filing of Robert L. Acree v. the Richmond County Board of Education.
Each side will present reasons to convince the judge that the desegregation case should remain open – else it will be closed.
“It would hardly be a stretch to say that the current level of integration within the facilities, staffing, elected school board, and student population of the Richmond County school system vastly exceeds any likely expectation of the original plaintiffs and their attorneys at the time of the filing,” Bowen wrote. “While I have no statistics to support such speculation, I cannot but observe that this case must be one of the hoariest of its ilk. No one seems to know quite why it is still pending.
“If it can be said that the school system’s desegregation objectives cannot be met with the presently composed elected school board and three successive black school superintendents, what is the prospect for the future?”
When the lawsuit was filed June 17, 1964, the Richmond County school system was racially segregated. But that is far from the racial makeup of the system today, according to Bowen.
In addition, the case has lain dormant for more than three years. The last activity Bowen found in the case record is the authorization of a $14,075 payment for attorney fees to Benjamin Allen on March 2, 2010.
“I inherited this case sometime after I was appointed to the district bench in December of 1979,” Bowen wrote. “... this case has outlived the three previous district judges who handled it from time to time.”
It has also outlived most of the original lawyers and many of the original plaintiffs.
Bowen quoted the federal judge who coined the phrase “The Alabama Punting Syndrome” in 1979 to describe state government officials who, refusing to comply with court orders, attempt to correct presumed unconstitutional conditions in prisons and mental institutions by forcing the court to stop the perceived violations.
Unless someone convinces him otherwise, Bowen said, it’s time for the government to take back the responsibility for ensuring that students are afforded the constitutional right to an equal education.
“There is ample reason to believe that the current pendency of this action is the result of something akin to the ‘Alabama Punting Syndrome,’ ” he wrote. “Moreover, it is my view that it would be unconscionable to allow this case to attain its 50th anniversary.”