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Quinn v. Board of Education of City of Chicago

United States District Court, N.D. Illinois, Eastern Division

February 13, 2017

Patrick Quinn, Irene Robinson, Antwain Miller, Marc Kaplan, Christopher Ball, Daniel Morales-Doyle, and Jitu Brown, Plaintiffs,
Board of Education of the City of Chicago, et al., Defendants.


          Elaine E. Bucklo United States District Judge

         In this action, a group of registered voters in the City of Chicago, several of whom are parents or grandparents of Chicago Public Schools students and/or have served on Local School Councils (“LSCs”), challenge Section 34-3 of the Illinois School Code, 105 ILCS 5/34-3, also known as the Chicago School Reform Amendatory Act of 1995. Plaintiffs allege that the appointive process Section 34-3 establishes for selecting members of Chicago's Board of Education (the “Board”) violates their constitutional due process rights and equal protection guarantees, and also violates Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act and Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Before me are plaintiffs' motion for a preliminary injunction and two motions to dismiss, one by the Board and the City of Chicago (the “City defendants”), and the other by the individual members of the Illinois State Board of Education (“ISBE members”) and the State of Illinois (together, the “State defendants”). The State defendants' motion also seeks, as an alternative to dismissal, a stay on abstention grounds. For the reasons that follow, defendants' motions to dismiss are granted and plaintiffs' motion for preliminary injunction is denied as moot.


         Plaintiffs' complaint states that of the 859 public school districts in Illinois, only one-the district coextensive with Chicago's city limits-has a school board whose members are appointed, rather than elected. They assert that unlike citizens residing in every other Illinois school district, who “have an unimpaired right to elect the members of school boards, ” Chicago's citizens are deprived of this right because “the Mayor of the City of Chicago has the sole and exclusive authority to appoint the members of the Board, at his pleasure, without any oversight.” Cmplt. at ¶¶ 18-22. Plaintiffs claim that under this system of unfettered mayoral control of the Board, corruption and mismanagement of Chicago's public schools have flourished. They highlight year-to-year financial crises and the Chicago Public Schools' looming bankruptcy; the criminal fraud of a recent Board CEO; contracts plagued by Board member conflicts of interest; and chronic underfunding of education, among other problems. Id. at ¶¶ 76-80.

         Plaintiffs situate their claims in a historical context dating back to 1872, when the Illinois General Assembly first created the Board of Education. Beginning at that time, and for more than the century that followed, Board members were appointed by the mayor, but they had to be confirmed by Chicago's City Council, which also had to approve the Board's budget. Cmplt. at ¶¶ 31-33. Then, in 1988, the General Assembly enacted the Chicago School Reform Act of 1988, which enhanced Chicago citizens' ability to influence the selection of Board Members, as well as to participate in local school governance. In particular, the 1988 Act authorized the election of Local School Councils to oversee certain aspects of local school administration, and it also created a School Board Nominating Commission that included parent and community representatives from the LSCs and was responsible for providing the mayor with a slate of candidates for appointment to the Board. Id. at ¶¶ 34-39. Plaintiffs allege that the 1988 Act was designed to, and did, increase the ability of parents whose children were served by the Chicago Public Schools-the vast majority of whom were non-white-to control the operation of those schools. Id. at ¶¶ 42-46.

         In 1995, however, following the increased electoral activity of minority race voters, the General Assembly passed the Chicago School Reform Amendatory Act, which included the challenged mayoral appointment provisions of Section 34-3. Although the purported objective of the 1995 Act was to address Chicago's “alleged educational crisis, ” plaintiffs state that prominent commentators at the time used “wild and overheated language” including “racially charged statements” that incorrectly impugned the “all-black Chicago public schools as the worst in the nation, ” which statements were “expressed or believed by white legislators.” Id. at ¶¶ 67-68, 70. The 1995 Act also eliminated the School Board Nominating Commission, thus extinguishing the role of LSC representatives in the appointment of Board members, and it further eliminated the requirement that the mayor's school board appointments be confirmed by the City Council. In this fashion, the 1995 Act gave the mayor-who then and at all times since has been a white person-unprecedented control over the public schools. Cmplt. at ¶¶ 47-51, 53.

         Plaintiffs highlight Chicago's modern history of racial discrimination and segregation in its public schools, pointing to a desegregation order and consent decree entered as a result of litigation filed in 1980. Cmplt. at ¶¶ 58-59. They assert that since Section 34-3 was enacted, there has been “no significant increase in the educational achievement of the Black student population, ” who “remain racially isolated and segregated at least in part because [of] indifference to racial segregation by the appointed Board.” Id. at ¶¶ 71-72. In this connection, plaintiffs allege demographic statistics, including that in 2015, while 38.9% of Chicago's public school students were Black, the student population of about 38% of the City's public schools was over 90% Black, while in almost a third of the schools, the student population was less than 10% Black. Id. at ¶ 83. Plaintiffs also note that the mayorally-appointed Board has closed over 100 neighborhood schools since 2001, nearly all of which served almost exclusively African-American students. Id. at ¶ 84. Meanwhile, since Section 34-3 was enacted, the tax rates on Chicago's predominantly white-owned property have fallen to among the lowest in the six-county Chicagoland area, and at times have been among the lowest in the state. Id. at ¶ 75.

         Plaintiffs' complaint includes four counts. Count I alleges discrimination in violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment and the First Amendment on the ground that Section 34-3 deprives Chicago residents of the right enjoyed by Illinois citizens living outside of Chicago to vote for members of their district's board of education. Count II asserts that pursuant to Section 34-3's mayoral appointment system, the Board unlawfully exercises the power of taxation without representation in violation of the Equal Protection and Due Process Clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment and of Article IV, section 4 of the Constitution. Count III asserts that Section 34-3 amounts to an electoral scheme resulting in the denial of the right to vote on account of race or color in violation of Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act. Finally, Count IV asserts claims under 42 U.S.C § 1983 for the denial of the right to vote on account of race or color in violation of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments and in violation of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Plaintiffs seek declaratory and injunctive relief, including an order that defendants must prepare a plan for the direct election of the Board, and for an adequate remedy for the alleged violations.


         All defendants argue that the complaint fails to state a claim on which relief may be granted, and they move to dismiss the complaint on that basis under Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6). In evaluating this ground for dismissal, I accept the complaint's well-pleaded factual allegations as true and draw all reasonable inferences in plaintiffs' favor. Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555-56 (2007). Plaintiffs need not allege detailed facts, but they must do more than speculate. Taken as true, their allegations “must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level.” Id. at 555.

         The City defendants also seek to dismiss the complaint under Rule 12(b)(1) on the ground that plaintiffs lack standing, and the State defendants seek to dismiss the individual members of the ISBE, sued in their official capacities, based on Eleventh Amendment immunity. Finally, as an alternative to dismissal, the State defendants ask me to abstain from adjudicating the case under either Colorado River Water Conservation Dist. v. United States, 424 U.S. 800 (1976) or the Wilton-Brillhart doctrine, named for Wilton v. Seven Falls Co., 515 U.S. 277, 288 (1995), and Brillhart v. Excess Ins. Co. of Am., 316 U.S. 491 (1942).

         A. Standing

         Because a plaintiff's constitutional standing is a prerequisite to the exercise of federal subject-matter jurisdiction, it is normally a threshold question that must be resolved before proceeding to the merits. Steel Co. v. Citizens for a Better Environment, 523 U.S. 83, 88 (1998). In this case, however, the City defendants treat the issue as an afterthought to their argument that plaintiffs fail to state an actionable claim. Indeed, the eight lines they devote to standing at the end of their eleven page brief reveal that the two arguments are essentially coextensive. See City Def.'s Mot. at 11, DN 38 (“Here, the Plaintiffs do not establish standing because, as articulated above, they possess no “right” to an elected school board.”). As the Court explained in Steel Co., “[d]ismissal for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction because of the inadequacy of the federal claim is proper only when the claim is so insubstantial, implausible, or foreclosed by prior decisions of this Court, or otherwise completely devoid of merit as not to involve a federal controversy.” 523 U.S. at 89 (internal quotation marks and citation omitted). The City does not argue, nor do I conclude, that that standard has been met. Accordingly, I am satisfied that federal subject-matter jurisdiction is secure.[1]

         B. Eleventh Amendment Immunity

         Resolution of State defendants' argument that the ISBE members are immune from suit under the Eleventh Amendment is facilitated by plaintiffs' apparent acquiescence to the view that the IBSE members lack a sufficiently close connection to the enforcement or implementation of Section 34-3 to be sued for injunctive relief under Ex parte Young, 209 U.S. 123, 159-160 (1908). Indeed, plaintiffs did not respond to this argument in their opposition brief, and at the hearing on December 5, 2016, after defense counsel asserted that “the members of the state board of education are really not proper parties to be involved, ” plaintiffs' counsel responded, “[f]rankly, Judge, if it's the State of Illinois defending it or the state board of education defending it, it's not that important to us.” Tr. of 12/05/16 H'rg. Because plaintiffs have not articulated any basis for disputing the ISBE members' assertion of immunity, they have conceded the argument. Bonte v. U.S. Bank, N.A., 624 F.3d 461, 466 (7th Cir. 2010).

         C. Equal Protection and Voting Rights Act

         In the main, plaintiffs' claims and legal theories under the Equal Protection Clause and the Voting Rights Act are not novel. To the contrary, they cover well-trodden ground, having been examined, on materially similar facts, in Mixon v. State of Ohio, 193 F.3d 389 (6th Cir. 1999), and Moore v. Detroit School Reform Bd., 293 F.3d 352 (6th Cir. 2002). As discussed below, the court in each case soundly rejected claims that legislation providing for mayoral appointment of the board of the state's largest urban school district violated the Constitution and Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act.

         1. Equal Protection and First Amendment

         Plaintiffs' complaint articulates several species of equal protection violations. In Count I, plaintiffs allege that Section 34-3 violates the Equal Protection Clause (as well as the First Amendment) by denying Chicago citizens the same right as other Illinois citizens to vote for members of the Board. In Count II, they claim that the statute violates the Equal Protection Clause (and the Due Process Clause, addressed in a later section) because it authorizes an unelected Board to levy taxes. And in Count IV, plaintiffs assert that Section 34-3 discriminates against African-Americans by denying them the right to vote on account of their race in violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the ...

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