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Judge reverses himself: District voting not a done deal after all

In an unusual case of high level legal backpedaling that throws at least four Fayette County Board of Education elections into disarray, a federal district judge last week in effect said, “Oops, let’s have a do-over.”

Judge Timothy C. Batten, Sr., in the April 18 order vacated his own ruling from February that effectively ended at-large voting for school board posts in Fayette County and set a new hearing for May 3.

The judge acted after the Fayette County Commission argued that the county never had a chance to present its case against the voting rights act lawsuit filed against both the county and the school board.

Many questions remain since the original order establishing new voting districts for the school board have been sent to the U.S. Justice Department for pre-clearance approval.

With qualifying opening in a few weeks for at least three school board posts now held by Janet Smola, Terri Smith and Marion Key, no one can say what the new legal maneuvering will do to the primary elections due to be held at the end of July. A fourth — a special election for the Post 5 seat held by appointee Leonard Presberg and scheduled for November — is also now up in the air.

The parties in the suit include the NAACP, the Fayette County Board of Education and the Fayette County Commission. Both county entities are being sued by the NAACP over district voting.

Batten in vacating his earlier order, said, “In the consent decree the (NAACP) and the school board defendants devised a single-member district (voting) plan for the (board of education). The parties further represent in the consent decree that ‘the Board of Education defendants have the authority to settle lawsuits.’”

“Because the decree was styled a ‘consent decree’ the court was of the understanding that all parties consented to its entry. However, the county defendants did not consent to the decree.”

“On Feb. 24 the court approved the proposed consent decree and entered final judgment. On March 5, the county defendants filed a motion to vacate the consent decree and final judgment, arguing that the remedy to which the (NAACP) and school board defendants agreed is not authorized by law. Accordingly, they argue, the court should vacate its entry on the consent order and final judgment.”

And that’s what the judge did, at least until the May 3 hearing.

Court documents state essentially that the county maintained that the consent order should be rescinded because no violation of the Voting Rights Act has been established, because the school board does not have the authority to make changes to the local constitutional amendment on its own motion and that the consent decree’s method of filling vacancies is contrary to state law.

The NAACP in response argued that the county lacks the standing to challenge the court-approved consent order or to interfere with the settlement with the NAACP and the school board because it imposes no legal duties or obligations on the county, according to court documents.

The county disagreed, saying that the consent decree imposes the expenditure of resources on the county pertaining to allocating voters to new districts then holding a special election in District 5 in north Fayette County, court records said.

Batten in the April 18 document said both parties to the suit are relying on a case decided in the U.S. Supreme Court.

“The court finds that the county defendants have standing to challenge the court’s order approving the consent decree. Further, because the court entered its approval of the consent decree without first allowing the county defendants an opportunity to be heard regarding their objections to the consent decree, the court will vacate its Feb. 24 order approving the consent decree,” the April 18 document said.

An evidentiary hearing will be held on May 3 to hear arguments on four issues: whether the obligations incurred by the county are reasonable, whether the consent decree is constitutional, whether the school board defendants have the authority to enter into the settlement and whether the consent decree’s method of filing is contrary to state law.

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