New wrinkle in Lexington 3 legal fight

A legal battle over election of the Lexington 3 school board is headed for new skirmishes.

An appellate court panel in Richmond, Va., on Monday ordered a review of two recent ballot contests to measure whether the at-large election of a seven-member board that oversees Batesburg-Leesville schools is discriminatory.

The outcome of races in 2006 and 2008 should be studied for evidence that alleged dilution of black political power continues, the three-judge panel of the 4th U.S. Court of Appeals said.

The appellate ruling could become a setback for black community leaders seeking to force changes that inadvertently could lead to the ouster of veteran white board members.

School board lawyer Lee Parks said the new ruling suggests keeping the at-large approach "is certainly possible or likely."

American Civil Liberties Union lawyer Laughlin McDonald predicted the pair of elections that must be taken into consideration "will show the same patterns of racially polarized voting."

But the requirement to review recent ballots could become an obstacle to settling the conflict, McDonald said.

"If you have to go back and consider things anew every time there's an election, it'll never get resolved," he said. "That's the danger."

U.S. District Judge Margaret Seymour of Columbia focused on board contests from 1994 to 2004 in her Feb. 19 ruling, which ordered a new method be adopted.

She took nearly three years to make a decision, a wait the appellate panel said "worked an injustice in the particular circumstances," since a black candidate was elected in 2008 while none ran in 2006.

Those contests should be considered as part of a broader analysis of whether the at-large method is unfair, the panel said.

The case now goes back to Seymour for another review under the appellate panel's guidelines. It was unclear Monday how quickly the case would come before her again.

Local black leaders say that 2008 outcome was arranged as part of an effort to frustrate the legal challenge under way. They are seeking to elect at least some part of the board from districts, at least two of which would be drawn geographically to create black voting majorities.

The appellate panel also said there were inconsistencies in the way Seymour's ruling used studies of how black candidates fared in some elections.

Leaders of the local NAACP are pressing for changes that open the way for a second black candidate to win a seat.

About 28 percent of the area's 13,000 residents in western Lexington County and eastern Saluda County are black.

Lexington 3 has spent $700,000 on the fight so far, a tab that could double if it loses, since it would be responsible for paying the ACLU's legal expenses.

School board members say at-large elections ensure candidates with broader experience and appeal succeed instead of those with narrow concerns.

But the ACLU says the method doesn't give blacks an equal chance of success.

Some community leaders are calling for a settlement of the dispute, saying it's become too costly to continue as tight finances force teacher layoffs and tax increases.