By Deborah Bailey, Special to the AFRO

The US Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals ordered plaintiffs representing alumni and graduates of Maryland’s four HBCU’s to the negotiating table for a fourth time, Wednesday.

The order is another attempt at mediation with the State of Maryland to end a discrimination lawsuit that has lasted more than a decade.

After two hours of oral arguments before a three-judge panel, December 11, Judges Steven Agee, Stephanie Thacker and J. Harvie Wilkinson, wasted no time issuing an order January 2, for the parties come to an agreement by April 30, 2019.

Maryland HBCU’s (Courtesy Images/Logos)

“The Court is of the firm conviction that this case can and should be settled,” the court order stated. “Otherwise, the parties will likely condemn themselves to endless years of acrimonious and divicine litigation that will only work to the detriment higher education in Maryland.”

HBCU advocates widely hailed the appellate court order.

“The judges’ order is welcome,” said Michael D. Jones, partner at Kirkland & Ellis LLP, who along with Jon Greenbaum represented the Coalition for Equity and Excellence in Maryland Higher Education. The plaintiffs represent alumni, students and supporters of Bowie State, Coppin State, Morgan State and University of Maryland Eastern Shore. The Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law has represented the Coalition in what has become widely known as the Maryland HBCU Equity Case for the past 12 years.

“The Fourth Circuit reaffirms our long-standing commitment to mediate in good faith,” said David Burton, president of the Coalition for Equity and Excellence in Maryland Higher Education. “We trust that the State of Maryland will now do the same.”

“It certainly is not a big surprise to me that the Fourth Circuit is saying to the State: Come to the table with a serious proposal, and to the coalition, come to the table and decide to work it out,” said Morgan State University President David Wilson.

The Appeals Court placed restrictions on the parties urging them to move rapidly and make serious progress toward settlement. The fourth Circuit Mediator will “report his view of the good faith progress of this mediation every 30 days,” to the court. Only the court’s Chief mediator can recommend extension of the April 30 date for settlement talks.

HBCU advocates won’t be standing by quietly waiting for the April 30 deadline. The HBCU Matters Coalition, a statewide advocacy group marshalling support for Maryland’s HBCU’s, is gearing up to hold  several events, making sure State officials feel the pressure to follow through on the Appellate Court order to make a serious offer that will settle the case.

“It is imperative that we state to Governor Hogan, Attorney General Frosh and the Maryland Higher Education Commission that ‘Justice Delayed is Justice Denied,’” said Marvin “Doc” Cheatham, president of the HBCU Matters Coalition.

HBCU Alumni and students across the state are planning to descend on Annapolis for a massive HBCU Day before the April 30 deadline.

“We will bring nationwide attention to MHEC and its historic economic exploitation and racial discrimination,” Cheatham said. The group plans a face-to-face take-over of the Maryland General Assembly to stress the urgency of a fair settlement.

In January 2018, Governor Larry Hogan issued a letter to the Maryland Legislative Black Caucus, offering to settle the HBCU Equity lawsuit for 100 million dollars. Hogan has offered the settlement money

To the state’s four HBCU’s over a 10-year period.  Each HBCU would receive 2 million per year; nowhere near is the amount needed to address the District Court finding of 14th amendment violations affecting HBCU students, according to lawyers for the Coalition.

Experts have indicated that a more realistic figure to address what the US District Court has said is a “discriminatory pattern of program duplication that put HBCU’s at a disadvantage” would be 1 to 2 billion dollars.

“We remain interested in reaching an agreement that will conclude the case in a way that is equitable for Maryland’s college students,” said Hogan spokesperson, Shareese DeLeaver.