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L. Merion redistricting case likely bound for higher court

The two sides in the Lower Merion school redistricting dispute argued Wednesday afternoon in federal court over a judge's May 13 finding of fact in the case.

The two sides in the Lower Merion school redistricting dispute argued Wednesday afternoon in federal court over a judge's May 13 finding of fact in the case.

In a hearing before U.S. District Court Judge Michael M. Baylson in Center City, attorneys for nine Ardmore students and the Lower Merion School District parried over which complex legal findings, including a 2007 U.S. Supreme Court, would influence Baylson's decision in the matter.

The pupils, who live in a diverse community in South Ardmore, went to court last May to gain the right to walk to their neighborhood school, Lower Merion High. They must go five miles to Harriton High School under a redistricting plan implemented in September.

The judge said he would rule by the end of June.

"This is an important case, but a very difficult case," Baylson said. "You've struggled over this case, and I'll do my very best to do the right thing."

The judge said the sides were "very close." He wished them "good luck with the Third Circuit Court," meaning he expected his ruling to be appealed.

David G.C. Arnold, the plaintiffs' counsel, argued that any time a public body uses race as a basis for action, the act, under countless Supreme Court rulings, defies the U.S. Constitution.

Judith E. Harris, counsel for the Lower Merion School District, said race can be used when it is for purposes of creating diversity in the classroom, especially when two good schools are involved.

"This is not a situation where some students are going to get an education and some are not," Harris argued.

Arnold argued during a trial in April that the students were targeted based on race, as school administrators prepared the redistricting plan. Because of that, he claimed the pupils were denied equal protection under federal law.

Harris argued that Arnold failed to establish intentional discrimination, and that geography and other factors drove the redistricting process instead.

In a May 13 memorandum, Judge Baylson sided with the plaintiffs that race was, indeed, a factor.

"Like a leitmotif in a Wagner opera, a recurring theme with variations, the process of redistricting repeatedly embraced the goal of achieving racial parity between the two high schools," the judge wrote.

But Baylson stopped short of ruling on what that would mean for the case.

Baylson asked the two sides to submit briefs stating whether or not a case entitled Parents Involved in Community Schools v Seattle School District No. 1 should serve as legal framework for the local case.

He gave the sides three weeks to answer questions on how the two cases might be linked. The answers formed the core of Wednesday's hearing.

Because the case is so complex, Baylson appealed to the sides to settle during a hiatus in the trial the week of April 18. Baylson warned in open court that the litigation would be long, expensive, and that the Seattle case baffled even judges and lawyers.

The parties were unable to come to a meeting of the minds, Baylson announced on April 26. He said he thought the case might end up being decided by the Supreme Court.