By Deborah Bailey, Special to the AFRO

Bowie State University graduate student Elijah Bell Clarke sensed history was looming as he and a classmate drove to Richmond, Dec. 11, to listen to oral arguments before the U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in the decade-long Maryland HBCU Equity Trial.

“The ramifications of this trial for HBCUs and my own education are critical. The importance can’t be overstated,” he said.

Students of HBCUs raise defiant fists to demand protection of their educational rights. (Photo by Deborah Bailey)

Inside the historic Lewis F. Powell Courthouse, Judges Steven Agee, Harvie Wilkinson and Stephanie Thacker jumped in right away, intensely peppering attorneys from the State of Maryland and the Maryland Coalition for Equity and Excellence for Higher Education with questions about the US District Court’s original liability finding in 2013 and the Court’s remedy issued in 2017, providing for a court-ordered administrator to oversee creation of unique academic programs at each of Maryland’s HBCUs.

“Maryland’s nine TWI’s (traditionally white institutions) are fully integrated and the HBI’s (Historically Black Institutions) have diverse enrollments,” Adam Snyder, chief council for the Maryland Attorney General’s Office said in opening remarks.

“The HBI’s are not integrated in the same way as the other institutions, are they?” Judge Thacker quickly interjected.

“How much is this going to cost,” questioned Judge Wilkinson, who openly expressed reservations  throughout the two-hour proceeding about a range of issues from the effectiveness of the District Court’s remedial order establishing an administrator, to the legitimacy of the court’s role in mitigating the “effects” of discrimination.

“The remedy is highly unlikely to boost White enrollment at HBI’s,” Wilkinson mused.

“So, what would succeed?” countered Thacker. “Has the State been doing that?” Are you saying that nothing would succeed?” Thacker added.

Agee jumped into the fray, seeking clarification from the State  on the types of issues being brought before the 4th Circuit Court. “You challenge both liability and remedy?” Agee questioned. Most cases  appealed from U.S. District Court will end with the decision of their designated Appellate Court. The U.S. Supreme Court hears less than two percent of cases brought before them annually.

“It seems like the State did not come to the table at all on the remedy issue,” said Thacker. “What assurance do we have that the State would come to the table if we reverse this decision,” she asked?

Michael Jones and Jon Greenbaum, attorneys for the Coalition for Equity and Excellence (HBCU students, alumni and supporters) emphasized State Maryland Higher Education practices that continue to have a damaging effect on HBCU’s.

“The traceable policy is program duplication,” Jones told the appellate judges. “White students would not go the HBI if they could get the same program at a TWI,” Jones said.

Jones told 4th Circuit Court judges that the State of Maryland did not present an expert on academic programs during the trial. “The State is trying to re-litigate issues of liability. The consensus of experts in the field is that unnecessary program duplication hurts the HBI’s,” he added.

Maryland HBCU’s (Courtesy Images/Logos)

“The State had an affirmative responsibility to remove duplication of programs,” argued Greenbaum before the Court. “One of the things that is unique about Maryland is the system has been set up to unfairly disadvantage HBCUs.”

“I don’t see the endpoint in this,” said a frustrated Wilkinson. “I just see more supervision stretching out for years.”

Greenbaum ended by affirming that 10 years is not too long for students and alumni who have witnessed a violation of their 14th Amendment rights.

“You made a point that Maryland could have fixed this, but it hasn’t,” said Greenbaum. “Allow HBI’s to reach their potential, don’t duplicate their programs and then students would have a real choice,” he concluded.

Oral arguments, usually limited to 20 minutes per attorney, were extended far beyond the normal court time frame due to the high interest in the case demonstrated by Appellate Court judges. Judge Agee ended the afternoon with a  final comment. “This is a case that should have settled long ago,” he said.

The usually hollow appellate court chambers were filled with more than 100 HBCU students, alumni, faculty, staff and advocates from Maryland’s four HBCUs along with friends and supporters from neighboring institutions in Washington DC, Virginia and North Carolina. Supporters left the courtroom with diverse views on what should come next.

“The National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education is hopeful…that the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals will affirm the judgment of District Court Judge Catherine C. Blake and cease delaying judgments for HBCUs their students…and all beneficiaries of HBCUs,” said Lezli Baskerville NAFEO CEO who drove down from Washington to witness oral arguments.

“There has been a lot of time and effort spent on this case over more than 12 years,” said Morgan State University President, David Wilson, who was also present for oral arguments. “I hope the parties will come together and reach a settlement in the best interest of Morgan State and all of Maryland’s HBCUs.”

“Today is one step toward victory,” said Marvin “Doc” Cheatham, chair of HBCU Matters Coalition who worked with alumni and students from Bowie, Coppin, Morgan and UMES to sponsor buses that packed the courtroom. “We still have a long way to go and must keep the pressure on,” Cheatham said looking ahead to an HBCU event at the Maryland State Capital in Spring of 2019.