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Judge Denies Motion to Dismiss Truancy Court Lawsuit

Posted: October 08, 2010|Category: Due Process Students' Rights Youth Rights

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In an important procedural ruling, R.I. Superior Court Judge William Carnes today denied a motion by Family Court Judges to dismiss the ACLU’s class-action lawsuit challenging various Truancy Court practices and procedures. In a 67-page opinion, the Judge found there was a sufficient basis for the ACLU to begin limited discovery against the defendants in the lawsuit. In the meantime, the Judge called on the parties to assist with a schedule to keep the case on track.

The ACLU’s lawsuit charges that the truancy courts are frequently punitive in nature, and that truancy court magistrates threaten vulnerable children and their parents with baseless fines and imprisonment, remove children from the custody of their parents without legal justification and fail to keep adequate records of court hearings. The lawsuit also charges that the court system disproportionately impacts children who have difficulty attending school or doing their schoolwork because of special education or medical needs.

Since the suit was filed against the Family Court judges and six school districts participating in the Truancy Court program, four of those districts – Coventry, Cumberland, North Providence and Woonsocket – have settled the case by agreeing to no longer refer students to the Truancy Court. At today’s hearing, RI ACLU volunteer attorney Thomas W. Lyons indicated that a fifth district, Westerly, was also on the verge of settling. That would leave only the Providence School District as a school defendant in the suit, although the Affiliate is planning to add new defendants in the coming weeks.

Judge Carnes also scheduled for a hearing on November 8th the Family Court judges’ motion to remove two National ACLU attorneys from the lawsuit, based on the attorneys’ exercise of their free speech rights. The judges claimed that National ACLU attorneys Robin Dahlberg and Yelena Konanova engaged in “reckless professional misconduct” by publicly commenting about the lawsuit at the time it was filed. The ACLU has called the family court judges’ motion “nothing more than a heavy-handed attempt to stifle the kind of criticism of governmental activities inherent in our democratic system.” In August, twenty professors of legal ethics across the nation joined in a “friend of the court” brief also criticizing the judges’ motion. At today’s hearing, Judge Carnes encouraged the defendants to reconsider pursuing the motion.

ACLU attorneys said today they were very pleased with Judge Carnes’ decision not to dismiss the case.

Read more about this case.

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