Round One of what will be many legal encounters to come on the issue of local school-system merger took place Thursday in the federal building as U.S. District Judge Samuel Hardy Mays conducted a status conference with lawyers representing parties to one aspect of the dispute.
The specific issue is whether the Shelby County Commission, which has created 25 provisional districts for a unified all-county school board and interviewed almost 200 candidates for them on Wednesday is legally entitled to continue with that process.
The Shelby County Schools board has sued the county commission, as well as Memphis City Schools and the Memphis City Council in an effort to block the committee process, citing what it sees as an overriding formula for MCS-SCS merger specified under the terms of the Norris-Todd bill, recently passed by the legislature and signed into law by Governor Haslam. The state Education Department has joined into that suit, and the various affected entities, including the federal government itself, were all represented.
Judge Mays’ courtroom often resembled a game of whack-a-mole, with one attorney rising as another one sat down, the process continuing in rapid sequence until all six or seven had been heard from in answer to one of Mays’ interrogatories.
The most immediate question was whether to grant the injunction sought by SCS and the state against further action by the commission. The matter was timely, in that the commission had planned to make its appointments on Monday. After considerable back-and-forth between Mays and the various lawyers, two alternative dates were agreed on as possible times for him to rule on the injunction request — 9:30 a.m. Monday, immediately before the planned commission appointments, or 9:30 the following Monday, providing that the commission was willing to postpone its appointments until then.
Judge Mays made it clear that he preferred having more time to sift through the evidence and issues and that he wanted to rule on a possible injunction before the appointments got made. “Once it’s done, how do you undo it?” he said.
Leo Bearman, the attorney engaged by the commission specifically to deal with legal questions relating to the merger issue, agreed to consult his clients, who agreed to postpone making any appointments before Monday, April 4, giving Mays a chance to rule on the requested injunction earlier that morning. (There will apparently still be a convening of the lawyers with Judge Mays next Monday, March 28, but the judge's ruling will not occur on that date.)
A variety of dates were agreed upon during the hearing, including the key one of April 25, set as the deadline for ruling on dispositive motions — i.e., on the matter of which legal basis, the Norris-Todd law or the private act under which the commission is proceeding, should prevail. If the answer to that basic question is conclusive, the matter of a trial, provisionally set for September, could be rendered moot.
Given the gravity of the issues involved, Judge Mays maintained a light, if business-like, mood. The multiplicity of lawyers was a godsend for Mays, who has a penchant for delivering quips in a Southern drawl which has become ever more molassified during his tenure on the bench.
Typical of the judge’s many jests was his remark to one of the attorneys, as another possible hearing date got added to the provisional calendar, “There you go. You get to collect an even bigger fee.”
The levity was catching. At one point Bearman made a mock-complaint about a “facetious” remark made by a lawyer for SCS, to which Judge Mays replied, “The only thing worse is a facetious judge, but we won’t go there.”