Vice-Chancellor Laster, a Chancery Court for the State of Delaware judge, finally ruled on the Red Clay referendum lawsuit. The very long ruling, clocking in at 186 pages, blasts Delaware’s antiquated method of property tax assessment and delves deep into education funding as a whole for the state of Delaware.
The final ruling, issued today, found fault with Red Clay for going over the line with their Parent Events at 23 Red Clay schools during their February 2015 referendum. But he also stated that the entire referendum process is one of great pressure for school districts and individuals in those situations can dance around what is wrong or right. He found they did not act with intended malice but for the public good since referendum results in the positive bring public schools money to fund them. As a result, he ruled against Red Clay redoing the entire referendum and refunding taxes already paid from it.
The lawsuit was filed by an elderly couple and their daughter through the Delaware American Civil Liberties Union. The plaintiffs claimed they were not able to vote because of inadequate parking due to the parent events staged to bring in positive votes for the referendum.
The ruling suggests no referenda in Delaware would ever have to take place if properties were assessed based on current home values.
This is an amazing read if you are at all interested in current education funding in Delaware. With Colonial facing a must-pass referendum or several teachers and educators will be let go, this decision could have a major bearing on any events they might be planning for their 2nd referendum attempt this year in the beginning of June.
This will be a big question for future referenda in Delaware. Does this ruling set a precedent for all referenda that no events can be held at schools during a referendum?
This hasn’t been discussed in mainstream media too much, but the Delaware Chancery Court just wrote a legal opinion concerning Red Clay’s last referendum. The Red Clay Consolidated School District wanted to case dismissed, but the Chancery Vice Chancellor Laster denied the dismissal on October 7th. The entire opinion can be read here. Keep in mind this is not an actual verdict, merely an opinion by a judge. Key highlights from this legal opinion are as follows:
Finally, to the extent this decision has erred by treating the Family-Focused Events as a reward for voting, at a minimum they were selectively targeted get-out-the-vote events designed to appeal to a readily identifiable group that Red Clay believed would support the tax increase. Viewed as such, the Complaint states a viable challenge under the Elections Clause to the Family-Focused Events. The Abbott decision stated that the purpose of the Elections Clause ―is to ensure that the right of citizens to vote in an election is unfettered.‖ 2008 WL 821522, at *19 (Del. Ch. Mar. 27, 2008.
The opinion goes into great detail about the events going on at various Red Clay schools the same day as the referendum.
Using the Family-Focused Events, Red Clay encouraged and facilitated voting by families with school-aged and pre-school-aged children. By doing so, Red Clay made the election unequal, not through traditionally negative means, but through positive means. Whether Red Clay‘s conduct went too far is necessarily a matter of degree, but for pleading-stage purposes, the plaintiffs have stated a claim under the Elections Clause.
The heart of the complaint behind this case was a woman brought her elderly parents to a school to vote. She claimed parking was a huge issue and there were empty school busses taking up spots. She claims her parents, who are disabled, were not given unfettered access to the polling booth.
Moreover, in the current case, Red Clay‘s selective get-out-the-vote efforts had negative effects on the elderly and disabled. As the Abbott decision recognized, a potential violation of the Elections Clause exists if the plaintiffs allege that ―their access to the polls was disturbed….‖ 2008 WL 821522, at *20.
Vice-Chancellor Laster denied the dismissal request by the Red Clay attorneys:
In challenging Red Clay‘s electoral interventions as a whole, the Complaint states a claim on which relief can be granted under both federal and state law. Red Clay‘s motion to dismiss is therefore denied.
The Vice Chancellor basically said if Red Clay does the Referendum again without some of the contested events taking place, and they have the same results, it would render the case moot.
Red Clay has the option of addressing the plaintiffs‘ contentions by returning to the electorate. This decision has concluded that the plaintiffs would not be able to state a claim for relief if Red Clay only engaged in certain types of conduct and avoided others, such as the Family-Focused Events and electioneering in close proximity to the voting rooms. If Red Clay called for a new special election and limited its electoral interventions, and if Red Clay‘s voters ratified the result of the February 2015 election by voting in favor of the tax increase, then this litigation would be moot.
This will certainly be an interesting case to watch if it does make it to trial. There was a lot of heat put on Red Clay based on the events of this referendum, and even though Attorney General Matt Denn did not find anything wrong, several Delaware legislators did. The final decision in this could change the way referendums in Delaware occur. Or maybe someone will finally get the good sense to do away with it for good!