Cobb: Appeal not over reinstating stickers
'Bad law' fight had $250,000-plus tab
By Diane R. Stepp, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, December 21, 2006
Cobb County school board members never intended to place controversial stickers disclaiming evolution back on biology textbooks, but they continued to wage a costly legal battle over four years that cost taxpayers more than a quarter of a million dollars.
On Tuesday, the school district ended the legal wrangle by agreeing to a settlement with parents who had challenged in federal court the board's decision in 2002 to attach stickers on the inside cover of about 35,000 high school biology textbooks saying evolution is "a theory, not a fact." The board placed the stickers in response to parents who viewed evolution as not being compatible with their religious views.
School board members appealed to the U.S. 11th Circuit Court of Appeals a lower court decision that required removal of the stickers. Last May, the appellate court sent the case back to the lower court for more fact finding and did away with the lower court ruling. It was back to square one. Failing a settlement, a new trial was a possibility, setting the legal meters running again. The school district's bill for attorneys fees reached $276,402 and would have gone higher -- by as much as $100,000 -- if the school system's legal firm, Brock Clay, had not taken on the appeal of the case in U.S. District Circuit Court for free.
Over four years, the school system paid the Marietta law firm $109,743 to defend its decision to attach stickers to the biology textbooks. In the settlement agreement U.S. District Judge Clarence Cooper signed Tuesday, the board agreed to pay another $166,659 toward attorneys fees of the five parents who sued the district.
Linwood Gunn, an attorney with Brock Clay who represented the district in the case, said the $166,659 is about one third of the plaintiff's legal fees, which were close to $500,000.
The school district spent $14,243 more to have the stickers scraped off the books after Cooper ordered them removed in 2005. They paid students and teachers $10 an hour to get the job done and equipped them with sponges and solvents, said school system spokesman Jay Dillon.
"It was a big waste of money," said David Chastain, a Cobb school parent and chairman of the Libertarian Party of Cobb County. "There are a lot of other things we could have done with the money like buy more textbooks or fund more programs for students who don't speak English."
Legal fees were a factor in the board's decision to appeal. "If we hadn't appealed Judge Cooper's decision, the board would have owed some $200,000 in plaintiff's attorneys fees," Gunn said.
But Gunn said the primary reason the school board decided to press its case had more far-reaching implications. "We felt Judge Cooper's order was incorrect. If the order was allowed to stand, it would have restricted the school board's ability to set its own curriculum, and school boards' across the state. We didn't feel like we could live with that order."
Gunn said the board's goal was not to return the stickers to the textbooks. "That was never our objective," he said.
Gunn said his firm handled the appeals case without charge because the firm felt that Cooper's ruling would set a negative precedent for Cobb and other school districts in Georgia.
"We felt it was worthwhile to do an appeal. We felt we had a good chance of success and didn't want the lower court's opinion to stand. We felt it was bad law. The Cobb County School District has been a long-standing client of ours and felt it was an important case to take to the next level."
Gunn estimated the cost of appeal would have run $60,000 to $100,000 had the firm charged for its services.
The school board rebuffed other offers of help with legal expenses and legal expertise from around the country. The Scottsdale, Ariz.-based Alliance Defense Fund, a powerful Christian legal group, was among those that offered help.
At the time, board chairwoman Kathie Johnstone said the board had no plans to accept it or any other offers of help.
Alliance Defense Fund spokesman Greg Scott declined to speculate on whether they could have won the case. "We can't speculate on that since we were not party to the case," he said.
However, Scott said a common tactic used by the American Civil Liberties Union, which represented Cobb parents, is the threat of massive legal fees. "They're hoping the folks they sue don't have deep pockets." The threat of legal fees if the ACLU is successful in its claims is enough to force settlement in many cases, he said.
Word of the settlement spread quickly. Georgia Citizens for Integrity in Science Education issued a statement Wednesday commending the Cobb school board's decision to drop the evolution sticker legal battle.
"The action taken by the board means that limited resources can be directed to where they have always belonged, in the classroom," said the organization's secretary, Ron Matson. "It further ensures ... that students will understand the central role evolution plays in all biological sciences."
The Anti-Defamation League also weighed in, welcoming the Cobb school board's decision to settle the matter.
"The real winners here are the students," said interim Southeast region director Shelley Rose. "Twenty years ago, the U. S. Supreme Court made it clear that any attempt to ban evolution or include creationism in the science curriculum is an unconstitutional endorsement of religion."
Rose maintained that the stickers should never have been placed in textbooks and that the boards's action to do so, "only served to divide the community and undermine science education, which is so critical to our children's future success. We hope this settlement heals the divisions and puts the focus back on science education."
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