Almost eight months after three federal appeals court judges agreed to consider the Lower Merion school redistricting case, they have ruled unanimously in favor of the district.
The Third Circuit Court panel found that a 2009 plan to reassign nine black students to Harriton High School against their will did not violate their constitutional rights.
The pupils had hoped to attend Lower Merion High, within walking distance of their South Ardmore homes. Harriton, in Rosemont, is a five-mile bus ride away.
The students contended in a federal lawsuit filed in May 2009 that they were singled out for reassignment based on race.
The district countered that it did nothing wrong and that no discrimination had occurred.
After District Judge Michael M. Baylson sided with the school district in 2010, the students appealed. Wednesday's ruling was the result of the appeal argued in Third Circuit Court in Philadelphia on April 28.
In their decision, the appellate panel wrote that the school district's action in assigning the pupils to Harriton "passes constitutional muster."
"The school assignment plan neither classifies on the basis of race, nor has a discriminatory purpose," wrote the presiding judge, Joseph Greenaway Jr.
Instead, he pointed to "pristine, nondiscriminatory goals" that Lower Merion administrators used to formulate the redistricting plan approved in January 2009.
The goals included making the district's two new high schools equal in capacity, not adding buses, and allowing the Class of 2010 to choose which high school to attend.
Greenaway wrote that while race was a factor in the creation of the plan, it was not used "impermissibly."
The plaintiffs, known as "Students Doe," were not identified in court papers because they are minors. Their parents attended court sessions.
In a statement posted on its website Thursday, the school district said it was "very pleased" with the ruling.
"This is yet another reaffirmation that the policy and practices adopted by the district were educationally and operationally appropriate, and constitutional," the statement said.
"We firmly believe this ruling should be the final chapter in this dispute, and sincerely hope that our resilient community can continue to work together on behalf of all our children."
James Herbert, spokesman for the plaintiffs, said they were studying the ruling and considering their next move.
"It is important to note that the circuit court's ruling confirms the earlier district court's findings that race was indeed a motivating factor in Lower Merion's redistricting plan," Herbert wrote in an e-mail.
"Two facts are noteworthy," he wrote. "First, the three justices in this decision could not agree on the appropriate standard of legal review, and one of them explicitly calls for clarification from the U.S. Supreme Court.
"Second, two recent rulings from the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals are contradictory with respect to this ruling, raising further questions about the constitutionality of such race-based governmental decision-making."
The appeals panel included Greenaway, Jane Roth, and Katharine S. Hayden.
Lower Merion has two new $100 million high school buildings. Administrators said in a series of public meetings prior to 2009 that they had to shift students to rebalance enrollment, prompting the redistricting process.