Judge weighs Florida A&M discrimination arguments

A federal judge Thursday indicated he will allow a potential class-action lawsuit alleging state discrimination against Florida A&M University to move forward — but said the plaintiffs need to revise the case and provide more specific examples.

United States District Judge Robert Hinkle peppered attorneys for the plaintiffs and the state with questions about the lawsuit, which contends that Florida’s only historically Black public university has faced discrimination in funding and programs.

The roughly hour-long hearing was held to consider a motion by Attorney General Ashley Moody’s office to dismiss the case. While Hinkle did not issue a formal ruling on the motion, he gave plaintiffs’ attorneys 30 days to file a revised lawsuit to address issues raised during the hearing.

Attorneys for six FAMU students filed the lawsuit in September and are seeking an injunction against state practices that they say violate the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution and a federal anti-discrimination law known as Title VI. A key issue is whether state decisions are “traceable” to de jure segregation — segregation sanctioned by law.

“You need to take your best shot at alleging how something on the ground today is traceable to de jure segregation,” Hinkle told plaintiffs’ attorney Josh Dubin.

Hinkle questioned arguments raised by both sides, including a state contention that plaintiffs lacked “standing” to file the case against Gov. Ron DeSantis, the state university system’s Board of Governors, the State Board of Education, state university system Chancellor Ray Rodrigues and state Education Commissioner Manny Diaz Jr.

Anita Patel, a senior assistant attorney general, said, for example, that the Legislature — not DeSantis and other defendants — controlled funding decisions that affect FAMU. The Legislature is not a defendant in the case.

Hinkle indicated he might find a lack of standing to sue some defendants, such as DeSantis, but took issue with the overall argument.

“If your argument is, ‘We can run a segregated system and there’s nothing you can do about it,’ that won’t wash,” he said.

The lawsuit raises a series of issues about funding and programs that it contends are discriminatory, including duplication of programs with nearby Florida State University and an alleged failure to have “unique” non-core programs at FAMU.

Arguments involve such things as an engineering program that FAMU shares with Florida State and a FAMU law school that was closed in the 1960s and revived decades later at an Orlando campus. The closure of the original FAMU law school came as a Florida State law school opened.

Hinkle said he was concerned about a lack of other specific examples of duplication in the lawsuit and questioned the arguments about the engineering school and the law school.

“They didn’t duplicate it,” Hinkle said, referring to the engineering school. “They shared it.”

But Dubin said duplicating and merging programs strip “FAMU of its identity” because the school then does not have “unique, high-demand programs.”

Hinkle cautioned at the end of the hearing against drawing conclusions from his questions.

“Nobody should take the questions as any kind of ruling,” he said.

Jim Saunders – News Service of Florida


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