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Weil Wins Civil Rights Victory for Mexican-American Students in Arizona

Weil scored a major civil rights victory for Mexican-American students yesterday in a high-profile case that challenged the enactment and enforcement of an Arizona state statute designed to eliminate Mexican-American Studies (MAS) courses in Tucson public schools. In a 42-page opinion, Judge Wallace A. Tashima – a U.S. Court of Appeals Judge for the Ninth Circuit sitting by designation in the District of Arizona – found that former Arizona state officials, including former Attorney General Thomas Horne and former State Superintendent of Public Schools John Huppenthal, “were motivated by anti-Mexican-American attitudes” when they enacted and enforced A.R.S. § 15-112 against the demonstrably successful MAS program in Tucson. The Court concluded that their actions violated the students’ Fourteenth and First Amendment rights under the United States Constitution. The Court’s finding that the law’s enactment and enforcement was motivated by racial animus is particularly noteworthy as courts rarely make that determination.

The MAS program, which was created in 1998 pursuant to a federal desegregation decree, first drew the attention of Arizona State officials in 2010. Officials were concerned that MAS teachers were attempting to indoctrinate students “into a Marxist oppressed/oppressor framework.” After multiple failed attempts to have the local school board dismantle the program, then-Superintendent Horne lobbied the State Legislature to pass a law banning ethnic studies with the specific intent of enforcing it against the MAS program. Mr. Huppenthal, who was a state Senator at the time and later succeeded Mr. Horne as State Superintendent, was instrumental in getting the bill passed. The statute was passed and enforced only against the MAS program.

In finding that the defendants acted with discriminatory intent, the Court relied on a “wealth of evidence” including anonymous blog comments posted by Mr. Huppenthal in which he stated that “MAS=KKK in a different color” and “No Spanish radio stations, no Spanish billboards, no Spanish TV stations, no Spanish newspapers. This is America, speak English.” The Court also found that the enforcement efforts by Mr. Horne were “rife with irregularities” and that, from the outset, “Horne’s investigation into the MAS program drew tenuous conclusions that were based on admittedly thin and one-sided evidence.”

This case was initially filed in 2010. The district court initially granted summary judgment for the State on the Fourteenth Amendment claim and certain First Amendment claims. The Ninth Circuit reversed the trial court’s decision dismissing the equal protection claim and remanded that claim for trial. The Ninth Circuit also reversed the trial court’s decision dismissing the student’s First Amendment claim of “viewpoint discrimination” — the State’s banning of certain books because the State disagreed with some of their contents. The appellate court remanded that claim for further proceedings.

Following remand, Weil, joined by local counsel and co-counsel, engaged in extensive fact and expert discovery. After the close of discovery, the district court denied the State’s motion for summary judgment on the plaintiffs’ First Amendment claim. The court also denied the State’s motion to exclude the plaintiffs’ three expert witnesses, but granted the plaintiffs’ motion to exclude one of the State’s experts. In June and July 2017, the Court conducted a two-week bench trial.

The Weil trial team consisted of partner Steven Reiss, retired partner Jim Quinn, associates Luna Barrington and David Fitzmaurice, project manager Jorge Martorell, paralegal Sirak Biratu and senior technician Steve Mangru.