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U.S. v. BOARD OF EDUCATION OF THE CITY OF CHICAGO

March 1, 2004.

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, Plaintiff,
v.
BOARD OF EDUCATION OF THE CITY OF CHICAGO, Defendant



The opinion of the court was delivered by: CHARLES KOCORAS, District Judge

MEMORANDUM OPINION

This matter comes before the court on the joint motion of the parties to modify the consent decree entered in this case in 1980. For the reasons set forth below, the motion is granted.*fn1 Page 2

BACKGROUND

  This 24-year-old case has a necessarily extended history, little of which is directly necessary to this decision.*fn2 In 1980, the United States filed a complaint alleging that the Board of Education of the City of Chicago engaged in unconstitutional segregation within the Chicago Public Schools ("CPS"). The same day, the parties filed a consent decree that resolved the litigation. This decree was not incredibly detailed, and three years later the parties submitted a comprehensive plan to effect the objectives of the consent decree — specifically, to establish the greatest practicable number of stably desegregated schools within the CPS and to provide compensatory programs in any schools that could not be stably desegregated. In January 2003, we requested that the parties examine the continued viability of and necessity for the consent decree. Both parties, as well as the amici curiae, agreed that CPS had not yet reached a point where the decree could be terminated whole-cloth. Instead, the parties set out to formulate a modification of the original decree that would remain true to its objectives while accounting for the realities of the situation that is, in material respects, different from the one the parties faced 24 years ago. They have jointly moved for entry of the modified decree. Page 3

  DISCUSSION

  Before we begin our examination of the motion to modify, we note that this is a complex case requiring the parties and the court to grapple with many difficult issues. Even in small communities, school segregation and its disassembly present intricate problems. In an exceptionally large and varied system such as CPS, the complexities and unique challenges are multiplied many times over, and the intricacies begin to resemble labyrinths. We acknowledge this reality and recognize the labors of the parties, particularly the Board, in pursuing the goals espoused within the consent decrees.

  There is no question that the Chicago of 1980 and before is not the Chicago of 2004. It was a recognition of this truism, in part, that prompted this court's initiation of inquiry into the continued vitality of the 1980 decree and the wisdom of maintaining the status quo under the original decree. All the parties agree that the 1980 decree is no longer capable of achieving its primary objectives. The good faith of the Board and the United States in reaching this new agreement is apparent; we sincerely appreciate their willingness to combine their talents and energies to reach a mutually acceptable result. We also commend amici for their efforts in bringing a third-party perspective to these proceedings. Page 4

 1. Applicable Legal Standard

  As an initial matter, we address the legal standard applicable to the decision before us. The leading case on modification of consent decrees, particularly those involving governmental entities in institutional settings, is Rufo v. Inmates of Suffolk County Jail, 502 U.S. 367, 112 S.Ct. 748 (1992). In their joint reply, the Board and the United States contend that the standard set forth in Rufo neither applies to this case nor controls our consideration of the proposed modification. They argue that this is because Rufo involved a contested motion to modify, whereas the motion here is agreed. The parties have not cited any case law explicitly addressing the applicability of Rufo in this type of circumstance, nor has our research revealed any.

  It is true that Rufo dealt with the situation in the context of a contested motion, and much of its discussion focused on that type of situation. However, we find no indication in the case that it should be limited solely to application in that specific circumstance. While it is undoubtedly important to foster agreement between the parties to the extent that we can to obtain all of the benefits that cooperation brings, such as reducing the time and cost of litigation and promoting a collegial atmosphere that will allow the most efficacious long-term solutions, a consent decree is not an exclusively private contract, impacting only the parties directly involved. See Rufo, 502 U.S, at 378.112 S.Ct. at 757; Evans v. City of Chicago, 10 F.3d 474, 477 (7th Cir. Page 5 1993); see also B.H. v. McDonald, 49 F.3d 294, 300 (7th Cir. 1995) (discussing the differences between settlements and consent decrees). It is a judicial order, rooted in equity and incorporating principles of fairness. See In re Hendrix, 986 F.2d 195, 198 (7th Cir. 1993).

  Particularly in cases such as this one, with direct and strong connections to the public interest, the duty of this court to independently assess the justness of the terms the parties propose cannot be understated. See Fed.R.Civ.Proc. 60(b); Heath v. De Courcy, 888 F.2d 1105, 1109 (6th Cir. 1989). Rufo reinforces the idea that consent decrees, though not immutable, should not undergo substantial revision without careful consideration. This principle applies with added force in institutional settings, where the public interest is so fundamentally implicated. The parties have not offered any reasoned basis why these tenets are erased by virtue of their collaboration.

  The parties do not contend that our decision is standardless or that our review is a mere formality. Rather, they argue that we need only consider whether the modification is constitutional, lawful, reasonable, and consistent with public policy. These criteria are enumerated in United States v. Bd. of Pub. Instruction of St. Lucie County, 977 F. Supp. 1202 (S.D. Fla. 1997), and Stanley v. Darlington County Sch. Dist., 879 F. Supp. 1341, 1371 (D.S.C. 1995). St. Lucie involved a motion by a school board to terminate a consent decree in which the board, the United States, and Page 6 plaintiff — intervenors submitted a joint stipulation of factual findings as well as conclusions of law. In reaching its decision to adopt the parties' recommendations, the court employed standards adapted from those applied to approval of class-action settlements, as well as extensive procedures designed to maximize public input. The opinion, in laying out the court's methodology, expressly noted the court's application of the "general principles that govern the acceptance or rejection of `consent orders'" in the school desegregation context. Id. at 1205. Moreover, the court explicitly stated that it had "considered whether adoption of the stipulation would be in the public interest." Id. at 1206. The case makes no mention of Rufo, perhaps because it involved a complete termination of the decree, as opposed to a modification.

  Stanley involved a school district that had operated under a desegregation order for over 30 years. The plaintiffs were a class of African — American schoolchildren; at various times the case included other governmental entities such as the State of South Carolina and the United States. Just prior to trial on issues surrounding the degree of the district's compliance with the court's orders since the district was commanded to desegregate, the parties submitted a proposed consent order. Stanley, 879 F. Supp. at 1368. The order represented the agreed plan of the parties to remedy the lion's share Page 7 of the problems remaining within the district.*fn3 Id. at 1368-69. Without any discussion of Rufo, the court assessed and ultimately approved the consent order under standards similar to those used in St. Lucie, Id., at 1371. As in St. Lucie, this is perhaps because the consent order was not a modification of an existing order but a brand-new agreement the parties had formed. Also, the plaintiffs in Stanley were a class; it is not surprising that the judge in that case employed the standard typically used for examining class — action settlements.

  The reply in this case insists that the standard used in these cases, borrowed from Fed.R.Civ.Proc. 23,*fn4 is the correct legal standard to apply in this case, despite the parties' statement in their earlier brief that the modified consent decree is not subject to this same standard. Memorandum in Support, at 24. We do not quarrel with the legal principles advanced in the cases cited by the Board and the United States. However, the cases that they cite differ in important legal and factual ways from the case before us — ways that are much more relevant ...


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