Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Judge on the Spot

How high school and desegregation shaped Samuel H. Mays Jr.

Posted By on Tue, Mar 12, 2013 at 4:13 PM

Fifty years ago, Samuel H. Mays Jr., United States judge for the Western District of Tennessee, was a star student at all-white White Station High School during the years of token school desegregation. When he finished law school at Yale in 1973, Memphis was being torn apart by federal court-ordered busing and white flight.

Now Mays is overseeing the largest school system merger in U.S. history as the majority-black Memphis City Schools and the majority-white Shelby County School system become a unified system of 146,000 students in August. So far, it is unified in name only.

The merger is running out of time. The Memphis City Schools system officially goes out of existence July 1st. Concerned about the pace of the merger, Mays last week appointed Rick Masson, a former chief administrative officer for the city of Memphis, as special master with orders to get back to basics.

"The Court's purpose in entering this order is not to assume the management of the two school systems or to make decisions about the transition," Mays wrote, but he is "prepared to expand the duties of the special master and to make such decisions as may be necessary to enforce the Consent Decree."

Before August, "students will know the school they will attend and how they will get there, have a safe and clean place to learn, have teachers prepared to teach them, and have an established curriculum."

Known to friends as "Hardy," Mays has firsthand experience with the go-slow and go-fast approach to school desegregation ordered by his judicial predecessors. Public schools in Memphis were integrated in 1961, one grade at a time, starting with a dozen first-graders. In 1963, Mays was a freshman at White Station in a class that included actress Kathy Bates and writer Alan Lightman.

"He was always the smartest kid in the class," said classmate John Vergos, who has known Mays since seventh grade. "He was popular and interested in politics. If there was anyone I thought would become president, it was Hardy."

There were no black students in the graduating class of 1966, and the school's sports teams did not play black schools. In Memphis, racial tensions would boil over in 1968 with the strike by sanitation workers and the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.

"We were the last of a generation that was pretty isolated," Vergos said.

Memphis was torn apart by busing in 1973, when some 30,000 white students fled the system for private schools or the separate Shelby County school system. The federal judge who ordered the busing plan, Robert McRae, said in retirement that he was the most famous graduate of Central High School since the gangster Machine Gun Kelly.

Mays joined the Memphis law firm now known as Baker Donelson after its two eminent Republican partners, former U.S. senator Howard Baker and Lewis Donelson. From 1995 to 2000, he was legal counsel and chief of staff to Tennessee's Republican governor Don Sundquist. Mays was appointed to the federal bench in 2002.

"He came from a totally political background and never lost his Ivy League accent," said former federal prosecutor Tim DiScenza. "Yet, I don't think I've ever seen a judge with so much sense of what the common citizen goes through every day. He brings common sense to very complicated matters."

In his ruling on the constitutionality of 2012 state legislation on the creation of new municipal school systems, Mays wrote that lawmakers acted with "a wink and a nod" to target Shelby County and Memphis. Again and again, he has tried to get the parties in the lawsuits to resolve things through negotiation. Naming a special master is the last card. The 23-member school board, he said, must not be political as it picks a superintendent, closes schools, trims budgets, and outsources jobs.

It is not known whether he said that with a wink and a nod.

White Station is the only Memphis public high school that sustained its academic excellence after the Isolated Class of 1966 graduated. Last year, it had 22 National Merit Semifinalists, but as an optional school it cannibalizes other schools, and, partly because of that, its success has not been replicated.

Friends describe Mays as an intellectual. He is taking an adult education course at Rhodes College this spring called "Constitutional Controversies." Among the topics are "the problem of diversity, elitism, and representation" and "the threat of judicial imperialism in power of judicial review."

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