A few hundred Harvard Law School students converged on Ames Courtroom Thursday to watch law professors direct questions toward someone else, for a change.
The event was a moot court of Meredith v. Jefferson County Board of Education, a case challenging school desegregation policies that will be heard by the Supreme Court on Dec. 4.
Practicing his arguments last week at the Law School was lawyer Frank Mellen, HLS ’73, who will argue the case for Kentucky’s Jefferson County school board.
A blue banner for the American Constitution Society, the sponsor of Thursday’s moot court, hung behind the judges’ panel, which included Martha L. Minow, the Smith professor of law, and professors from area law schools.
The case emerged from the Board’s decision in 2002 to deny a requested transfer to Joshua McDonald, a kindergartner whose mother, Crystal Meredith, wanted her son to attend school closer to home.
A 2001 law reformulated the Board’s court-mandated integrated school system with a plan that required 15 to 50 percent enrollment of minority students in every public K-12 school in the district.
Joshua was denied his transfer because the move would have impacted the racial balance at the two schools.
The Civil Rights Project at Harvard, led by Gary Orfield, a professor of education and social policy at the Graduate School of Education, recently submitted a friend-of-the-court brief in the case summarizing research that shows that school desegregation has benefits for both white and minority students.
The brief is signed by 553 social scientists and researchers.
As Law School students indulged in wine and cheese last Thursday, Mellen argued that the Board needs to assign students to schools if it is to maintain integration.
“It may be that there is some socioeconomic plan that could accomplish racial diversity,” a confident Mellen said, “but the board has rejected those alternatives.”
“The district does not believe that [alternatives] would work as well at achieving racial integration,” he added.
In critiquing Mellen after his arguments, Minow stressed that the Supreme Court has never addressed how public schools should use race to assign students to schools for the purposes of desegregation.
“I think that you’re going to get a lot of questions like, ‘Is race a determining factor?’ and I’m not sure that you came up with a fully satisfying answer,” said Minow, who recommended that Mellen emphasize the non-racial factors that are decisive in admissions.
The judges also advised Mellen to abridge legal descriptions, avoid the word “quota,” and emphasize the Board’s “desegregative” role in the community.
In responding to the judges’ at-times hard-hitting questioning, Mellen defended the Board’s objective: “Our goal clearly, and we don’t apologize for it, is a racially integrated school system,” he said.
In her closing remarks, Minow said, “I hope we pushed you hard—we meant to.”
Minow wrote in an e-mail after the event that she hoped moot courts at the Law School would “give the lawyers a chance to practice their arguments and hear comments from faculty and students.”
Though the judges did their best to keep Mellen on his toes, the absence of one judge was apparent, if only because of an empty swivel-seat.
Laurence H. Tribe ’62, the Loeb University professor at Harvard, was scheduled to judge the moot court but had to leave upon notice that his dog, Chloe, had been found “shaking like a leaf” on the streets. The traumatized Chloe had fled the sound of a fire alarm in Tribe’s house, jumped a fence, and raced down Brattle Street, where a passerby waited with her while Tribe dashed the mile to the rescue.