U-46 desegregation case: The players

Third of four parts

In 1992, a group of parents sued the state, claiming more than 50,000 children with disabilities in Chicago Public Schools were segregated from mainstream programs in violation of federal law.

In what was known as the Cory H. case, U.S. District Court Judge Robert Gettleman in 1998 ruled in favor of the parents and ordered Chicago Public Schools to grant equal access to schools, classes and programs for children with disabilities.

Gettleman also ordered the state to implement a vastly simplified system of certification for special education teachers to comply with federal law — a system that is still in use today.

With his ruling in the landmark class-action lawsuit, Gettleman transformed the way children with disabilities are educated in public schools across Illinois.

“It really established the responsibility of state boards of education for inclusion of children with disabilities,” said Laura Miller, one of the attorneys who filed the Cory H. case. Now, she said, “There are many more opportunities for kids of all disabilities to attend neighborhood and magnet schools.”

On Monday, another trial will begin in a federal courthouse in Chicago that could have far-reaching implications for public schools. Lawyers for Elgin Area School District U-46 will defend the district against claims it discriminated against minority students by relegating them to inferior schools.

As in the Cory H. case, the outcome of the trial rests in the hands of one man: Robert Gettleman.

Gettleman, of course, is only one player in this trial that features high-powered law firms with pedigrees in the field of desegregation cases and five plaintiffs who, because of the class action status of the case, represent some 20,000 Hispanic and black students in the 41,000-student district.

The judge

As a district court judge, Gettleman has presided over many high-profile criminal and civil cases, including the Federal Trade Commission's case against popular TV pitchman Kevin Trudeau, the political corruption case against a former Chicago streets and sanitation boss and the legal wrangling over whether Illinois schoolchildren should observe a moment of silence.

In 2010, Gettleman ordered Trudeau to spend 30 days in jail for contempt of court after Trudeau urged supporters to flood Gettleman's e-mail account with messages supporting the charismatic salesman.

Earlier this month, Gettleman sentenced former Chicago Streets and Sanitation Commissioner Al Sanchez to 2½ years in prison for his role in a hiring scandal. Sanchez was convicted in 2010 of awarding city jobs and promotions to members of a political group that helped elect outgoing Chicago Mayor Richard Daley.

Just a few weeks before sentencing Sanchez, Gettleman slapped down a request for leniency from a Downers Grove man who earlier pleaded guilty to bilking more than 250 people out of $6.4 million in a Ponzi scheme.

“You're really just nothing but a con man and a thief, and you have no conscience at all,” Gettleman said at the sentencing hearing. “Your whole life is a Ponzi scheme, building one lie upon another. It finally caught up with you.”

Gettleman sentenced the man, 50-year-old David Hernandez, to 16 years, eight months in prison, saying, “You need to be taken away from society for a long time.”

In 2009, Gettleman ruled that the Illinois Silent Reflection and Student Prayer Act was unconstitutional, saying, “The statute is a subtle effort to force students at impressionable ages to contemplate religion.”

But in January, an appellate court ruling forced Gettleman to lift his own injunction banning observance of a moment of silence in Illinois schools.

The atheist activist who challenged the law has vowed to appeal the case to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Equality for the disadvantaged, central to the U-46 school desegregation case, is an issue close to Gettleman's heart. He contracted polio at 7 and wore a leg brace until he was 17.

“My experience with polio and having a disability has certainly been a major factor in shaping my life,” Gettleman said in a 2004 interview with “Underneath Their Robes,” a federal judiciary blog. “As a child, and even as an adult, I have known what it is like to be different and to be treated as different.”

In 1988, Gettleman, then in private practice, litigated a case that resulted in a court order directing the CTA to equip its buses with wheelchair lifts.

In the same 2004 interview, Gettleman said his experience as an advocate for people with disabilities, “as well as my own personal experience dealing with a disability, contributes to my judicial perspective, just as Thurgood Marshall's civil rights experience contributed to his.”

Plaintiffs' attorneys

The attorneys who will argue the Elgin desegregation case before Gettleman are not strangers to complex educational litigation.

Futterman, Howard, Ashley and Weltman, a Chicago boutique law firm specializing in civil rights, is representing the families suing U-46.

Carol Rose Ashley and Stewart Weltman, both principals in the firm, are expected to lead the plaintiffs' legal team.

Ashley is the head of Futterman Howard's school law section and worked on major desegregation cases in Champaign, Freeport and Rockford. Weltman has practiced law for more than 30 years, specializing in antitrust actions, civil rights and securities fraud; he has also argued before the U.S. Supreme Court.

U-46's team

U-46's defense team will be led by Patricia Whitten, a partner in Franczek Radelet of Chicago. In more than 30 years of practice, Whitten has specialized in education law, including civil rights and desegregation lawsuits, among them the Champaign case. Whitten also served as the Chicago Board of Education's first female and youngest general counsel.

U-46 is also being represented by the Washington, D.C.-based firm of Hogan and Hartson, known for its expertise in school desegregation cases. It is the former firm of U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts.

The plaintiffs

Little is known about the plaintiffs in the U-46 lawsuit; through their attorneys, they have declined to comment while the case is pending.

The families listed on the suit are the Tapias, Burciagas and Sifuenteses, all Hispanic; as well as the McFaddens and the Ivys, both black.

Ÿ According to court filings, the three Tapia children were enrolled in U-46 elementary schools as of the 2005-06 school year. Two of the children attended Illinois Park Elementary School; plaintiffs allege the closure of that school in 2004 disproportionately affected minority students.

Ÿ At the time of the plaintiffs' 2006 filling, there were five Burciaga children in U-46 schools, spanning all levels. Attorneys for the family argue the Burciaga children faced discrimination when they were denied the opportunity to attend the then-new South Elgin High School.

Ÿ Two Sifuentes children were in U-46 schools in 2006. Their attorneys claim they did not receive adequate bilingual services.

Ÿ Five McFaddens were enrolled U-46 schools in 2006. The lawsuit alleges they have had to attend overcrowded, segregated schools.

Ÿ Three Ivy children attended U-46 schools in 2006. Plaintiffs' attorneys say they have faced harsher discipline than their white peers.

Since 2008, when Gettleman granted class-action status to the lawsuit, the plaintiffs have essentially been proxies for more than 20,000 Hispanic and black students in U-46 schools.

In the five years since an amended lawsuit was filed, the circumstances of the named plaintiffs have changed as they graduated from the district, moved on to other schools or withdrew from the case, according to court filings. Two of the McFadden kids withdrew from the suit as recently as last week because they graduated from Larkin High School in 2010.

On that basis, attorneys for U-46 tried to get the lawsuit dismissed late last year, arguing the plaintiffs no longer had standing to bring the complaint.

Judge Gettleman was not persuaded.

He wrote: “Plaintiffs have established that they had standing when the suit commenced and that they continue to have a personal stake in the outcome. Accordingly, defendant's motion for summary judgment (dismissal of the case) for lack of standing is denied.”

Lawsuit: Judge rules plaintiffs still have stake in case even if no longer in school system