Twenty-five years ago, I was in a Mobile courtroom as Morris Dees was exposing the banality of evil, the Alabama kind. Morris and his Southern Poverty Law Center were trying a civil case against a murderous enterprise.
The charismatic trial lawyer had sued the United Klans of America as the institution behind the lynching of 19-year-old Michael Donald, a random victim snatched off the street and hung from a tree by two local klansmen. The pair had been convicted of murder, but the Southern Poverty Law Center, representing the victim’s mother, was going after the enterprise that nurtured their violent racism.
Dees, with his disconcerting Southern charm, ripped the defense apart. By the time he finished trying his case, four other members of the Klan had managed, in the course of their testimony, to implicate one another in the killing. An all-white jury had decided that United Klans of America, Inc., owed Beulah Mae Donald $7 million. The Southern Poverty Law Center, fulfilling its mission, had sued on behalf of the oppressed and extracted righteous justice.
The civil rights outfit, still at it, just demolished another nefarious defendant on behalf of the oppressed. Except this time the defendant was me. Or at least it was my taxes that underwrote the hapless legal defense offered up by the Florida Board of Education and the Board of Governors.
U.S. District Judge K. Michael Moore issued a summary judgment Tuesday — the legal equivalent of a slam-dunk — against the state and a blatantly unconstitutional policy adopted back in 2005 to deny young Florida citizens in-state tuition unless their parents can prove legal residency.
The plaintiffs included four high school grads born and raised in Miami, one born in Los Angeles but raised in Palm Beach County. All had been denied in-state tuition. The effect, as Judge Moore noted, was that these young Florida citizens who happened to be children of undocumented immigrants were charged a state college tuition rate triple that paid by fellow state citizens. Judge Moore tossed the policy, telling the state what their lawyers already knew. That the Supreme Court applies “a form of heightened scrutiny when evaluating alleged violations of the Equal Protection Clause that arise from a state’s denial of a benefit to a child or creation of an additional obstacle to a child solely by virtue of the parent’s unlawful or immoral behavior.”
Judge Moore cited evidence, just as obvious, that a policy stifling the education and earning potential of young citizens also runs counter to the state’s economic interest.
His ruling was no surprise. Florida, apparently, was the only state still up to this bit of xenophobic trickery. Colorado dropped a similar policy when the state attorney general warned that it was constitutionally indefensible.
What was surprising, however, was that Hispanic elected officials with clout in Tallahassee didn’t raise hell seven years ago when this ugly policy was adopted.
And why did it take a crusading civil rights outfit, known for taking on the likes of the Ku Klux Klan, to stop Florida from oppressing its own young citizens?