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Judge Rejects Challenge to Alabama Property-Tax System

A federal district judge has ruled that Alabama's property-tax system does not violate the equal-protection rights of black and poor schoolchildren in the state.

In an 854-page opinion on Oct. 21, U.S. District Judge C. Lynwood Smith Jr. of Huntsville dismissed a lawsuit brought by children and parents in Lawrence and Sumter counties. They alleged that the state's property-tax structure was rooted in racially discriminatory policies that created barriers that prevent black citizens from bringing about equitable school revenues.

Judge Smith's opinion in Lynch v. Alabama makes references to the film "Birth of a Nation," the novel Gone With the Wind, and quotes Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, and Bob Dylan. The opinion also has two tables of content and a 15-page list of sources.

The judge was highly critical of what he said was the racist origins of the state's 1901 constitution, as well as present-day disparities in spending.

"The overwhelming weight of evidence in this record establishes—clearly, convincingly, and beyond reasonable debate—that virtually every provision of the basic charter of Alabama government drafted by the delegates to the 1901 Constitutional Convention was perverted by a virulent, racially discriminatory intent," the judge said. But the evidence of racial animus was less convincing with regard to state constitutional amendments adopted in the 1970s and 1980s, he said.

"Statewide, school systems are just as able to raise tax revenues for the education of black students as they are for the education of white students," the judge said. "In fact, Alabama's black students actually fare better in terms of yield per-mill per-student than do white students."

But the judge said he was bound by U.S. Supreme Court rulings that barred the plaintiffs' suit.

"Plaintiffs have proven a disparity in funding among the state's public school systems, but not a disparity along racial lines," Judge Smith said. "Faced with similar facts in San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez, the Supreme Court ruled that such a variation in funding is rationally related to the legitimate governmental interest in permitting and encouraging a large measure of participation in and control of each district's schools at the local level."

"Like it or not," Judge Smith concluded, "Supreme Court precedent compels a conclusion that the property tax scheme embedded in Alabama's 1901 Constitution and subsequent amendments does not offend the Fourteenth Amendment's Equal Protection Clause."

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