Elaina Rollins ’16, News Editor
This past Thursday, April 18, CUNY-College of Staten Island Professor Michael Paris spoke to a group of Trinity students and professors about the possible revitalization of a famous Connecticut Supreme Court case – Sheff v. O’Neill. Professor Paris is an Associate Professor of Political Science at CUNY. His research and work is concerned with distributive justice, public policy, and the connection between law and politics in efforts for social reform. He teaches courses in American politics, constitutional law, and legal studies.
Professor Paris’s lecture focused strictly on Sheff v. O’Neill, a 1989 lawsuit that was filed in response to Connecticut’s major racial segregation and isolated poverty. The plaintiffs of Sheff argued that the state was denying children of their fundamental right to an education, pointing out the fact that suburban schools with mostly white, affluent students were much more successful and well-funded than inner-city schools with nearly all poor students of color.
After seven years of trials, decisions, and repeals, the Connecticut Supreme Court finally ruled that the State was at fault. Although this decision has led to government reform efforts, such as an massive increase in charter schools and urban-to-suburban transfer programs, there is still racial isolation and concentrated poverty in Hartford.
This is where Professor Paris began his lecture. Paris pointed out that although Sheff v. O’Neill is replicable in theory, most people have forgotten about school desegregation efforts. Many state Supreme Courts have stopped even looking at cases similar to Sheff.
Paris explained that the reason many educational activists and lawyers have stopped looking toward school desegregation as a feasible reform option is that it is not “politically viable.” This means that although school desegregation has been proven to lead to greater life chances on behalf of all students affected, school desegregation is challenging to address because it deals with race–a topic many people feel uncomfortable discussing.
Although many people have forgotten about the possibilities of Sheff v. O’Neill, Professor Paris has not. First, he pointed out that this case could lead to many possible avenues for reform if it is dealt with at the state level, rather than the federal level. There are 51 constitutions in the United States, and he believes it is unrealistic to try and only focus on one.
Paris explained that, “Sheff is the only current valid decision about de facto segregation.” This means that Sheff is important because it ruled that although Connecticut did not create racial segregation through specific laws, the state is still responsible for its existence and ill effects on schoolchildren.
In his lecture, Professor Paris discussed four virtues of Sheff v. O’Neill. First, he explained that the reform lawyers had a strong relationship with the people they were representing. Unlike some lawyers who may meet their client once or twice, the Sheff lawyers built coalitions in Hartford for two years before filing their case. These coalitions informed them so that they could present their argument vividly in court.
Second, Paris said that the lawyers of Sheff were successful because they argued for equal educational opportunity, not racial balance. The lawyers framed their case so it specifically made educational equality the ultimate goal. Racial inequality was argued to be of the roots of the problem.
Third, Professor Paris explained that the lawyers made state laws and politics work together. The Sheff case was not surrounded by a lot of public discourse. There were no pickets outside the courthouse or angry parents on television. By keeping the discussion strictly inside the court, politicians in the area were not affected by any opinionated voters.
Lastly, Sheff was successful because its lawyers transformed the language of Connecticut’s constitution into rights for its citizens. Connecticut law guarantees children equal opportunity for education as well as equal protection under the law. By combining these two key components of the legislature, the Sheff lawyers came out on top.
If Sheff v. O’Neill has so many positive components, then why has it not been replicated? Professor Paris has worked for years in the legal world and this country has yet to see another major school desegregation case like the one in Connecticut.
Professor Paris knows Sheff is hard to replicate. It is difficult to link racial isolation and poverty to unequal education inside a courtroom. States deflect the issue by arguing that the problem is poverty, not race. They also often just refuse to assume responsibility, shifting the blame onto individual families rather than structural problems.
Professor Paris gave two pieces of advice to anyone who may attempt to file a lawsuit similar to Sheff. First, he argued that lawyers must differentiate between the consequences of harm and the harm itself. Lawyers must frame their case so that racial segregation and isolated poverty are seen as real problems, and not just side affects to other more politically amiable issues.
Second, Professor Paris said that activists for school desegregation must not shy away from the positive side of race. Racial identity is not a problem – it is a resource. When race is seen as a positive, rather than a negative, the issue can become less politically treacherous.
Professor Paris is realistic about Sheff v. O’Neill. He knows the case presents many difficulties, that it is not easy to replicate. State law is complex and difficult to maneuver. However, he does see law as an avenue for social change, and if law is used in the right way, school desegregation may once again be brought to life.