State judge allows school segregation lawsuit to proceed

Judge Mary Jacobson’s rulings on several procedural issues came quickly after dense arguments on a number of issues. Number one, the defendants — including the state Board of Education and the education commissioner — asking her to throw out the case unless at least some of the state’s school districts joined as so-called indispensable parties.

“The failure for them to have party status here would mandate a dismissal of the complaint. The case cannot move forward without their participation as parties,” said Deputy Attorney General Melissa Schaffer.

The state also asked the judge to order further discovery — more evidence — than the plaintiffs have provided, which defendants say has centered more on statistics than the state’s motivation.

“That’s not something that the state would be able to respond to purely on the law. Again, we would have to have experts to opine on that, to educate the court on the issues, and be able to have a full record developed on those issues,” said Schaffer.

Representing the plaintiffs, attorney Larry Lustberg pushed back.

“What has occurred here is their responsibility. It is their responsibility to prevent segregation. It is not only within the broad general powers of the commissioner and the state Board of Education of the state to do it, but as we have pointed out in the cases, some of which your honor referenced earlier, they’re the ones who can do it,” said Lustberg.

Plaintiffs also asked the judge to bifurcate the case, essentially separating the liability from any damages, which could be significant. This is a case that, depending on how it goes, could see New Jersey turn to regional school districts as a means to desegregation. Jacobson’s ruling seemed to cut the cake in half.

“This is a significant and far-reaching case and it merits very careful consideration by the court,” Jacobson said.

She then ordered the plaintiffs to reach out to the state’s 588 school districts to alert them of the suit and their ability to join as plaintiffs by the end of March. She also reserved judgement on bifurcation, and ordered both sides to meet in order to schedule meetings on discovery, giving the parties until the end of the month to come up with a schedule for that.

The judge’s orders serve the purpose of discovery more than expediency. Her deadlines suggest that this case will stretch well into the summer, at least.