District voting now heads to a bench trial


The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals decision on the appeal by the Fayette County Commission (BOC) and Fayette County Board of Education (BOE) of a federal court decision mandating district voting in Fayette County is in. The three-judge federal panel rejected the decision by U.S. District Judge Timothy C. Batten and is sending the case back to federal court for a trial rather than relying on the summary judgment issued previously.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit in Atlanta ruled on Jan. 7 that Judge Batten made a mistake in granting summary judgment in favor of the NAACP (appellees) and against the Fayette County Board of Commissioners (BOC) and the Fayette County Board of Education (BOE), both of which are appellants, in the lawsuit alleging racial discrimination under the federal Voting Rights Act.

Representing the BOC, attorney Anne Lewis on Thursday said the outcome of the appeal will result in the case being returned to U.S. District Court Judge Timothy C. Batten.

The three-judge panel included 11th Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Charles R. Wilson, appointed to the court by Pres. Bill Clinton in 1999, 11th Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Robin S. Rosenbaum, appointed to the court by Pres. Barack Obama in 2014, and U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida Chief Judge Anne C. Conway.

The appeal win means that the BOC and BOE get to present a fresh case for holding on to at-large voting before Judge Batten in what is known as a bench trial. That means that the judge will act as a one-man jury to hear all the evidence and rule after all evidence is presented.

It was on several occasions during the Dec. 10 appeal hearing that one or more judges asked BOE and BOC attorneys if they believed a full trial was warranted.

In the discussion portion of its Jan. 7 ruling, the three-judge panel said, “On appeal, Appellants raise several issues, including that the district court’s entry of summary judgment was procedurally deficient, as, ‘at the very least, the issues merited a trial with real findings.’ Of all the arguments raised by Appellants, this is the one argument on which we rest our limited remand. We conclude that the district court’s entry of summary judgment against the BOE and BOC was improper…”

Noting its discussion on the summary judgment against the BOC and BOE the three-judge panel in conclusion said the case must go back to U.S. District Court where a trial will be conducted. The panel also noted that the BOE before Judge Batten did not have an opportunity to make an argument against summary judgment.

“For the reasons set forth above, we conclude that this case warrants a limited remand so that the district court may conduct a trial. We note that the BOE did not have an opportunity to present its arguments against summary judgment; however, since we also find that summary judgment was improper against the BOC, we see no reason why the BOE’s case cannot be heard with along with that of the BOC. The period for discovery had ended, and no party appealed the court’s determination that discovery had closed for all parties. Thus, on remand, the court may proceed to trial if it so desires, particularly given our finding that the record below merely wants for the evidentiary determinations that summary judgment does not permit,” the court said.

The ruling by the 11th Circuit panel does not overturn the district voting scheme approved by the court, nor does it affect the outcome of last November’s general election.

“Also, because we resolve this case on strictly procedural grounds, we do not reach the parties’ arguments related to the court-drawn remedial plan. In light of our decision and the reasons therefor, we decline to disturb the results of the election that took place under the court-drawn remedial plan,” the court said.

Representing several local residents and the Georgia Conference of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People appellees (plaintiffs) in both hearings was NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund attorney Leah C. Aden.

Representing the Fayette County Board of Commissioners appellants (defendants) were attorneys Anne Lewis and Bryan Tyson. Attorney David Walbert represented the Fayette County Board of Education appellants (defendants).