Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Legalism vs. Spirit of the Law

In recent days in Harrisonburg Virginia, Steven Blatt, a lawyer, served a writ of mandamus on a local school board member, Dany Fleming, seeking Mr. Fleming’s removal from the school board as Mr. Fleming’s house is on the wrong side of town. While the writ and the controversy will not have earth shaking or ongoing effects on either national or even local policies or politics, it does reflect how Americans tend to think politically, the boxes we construct and to which we hold even when the box does not fit the situation.  

The Harrisonburg School Board has six elected officials and all members are elected by the whole city. Two seats are aside for the west side the city with the remaining four designated for the more populous east side. Presumably the division in this manner was established to help ensure that families on both sides of the city have a voice in Board decisions. It is a reasonable division to ensure that the more populous east side does control the whole Board.


Rather than defining the dividing line between west and east by the elementary school to which your address and neighbor’s is associated, it is defined by which side of a particular street your house is situated…in this case Main Street. As we know, to achieve population balance as well as to make maximum use of physical resources, which families/streets are assigned to which school change over the years. And that is the rub of the situation as Mr. Fleming’s house is on the wrong side of the street by several blocks.

When he registered to run, the registrar told him to register to run for one of the west side seats as that is where his children and neighborhood went to school. So he ran in good faith, and has been serving in good faith until Blatt for whatever reason takes issue. 


Mr. Fleming should be lauded for wanting to serve on the Board, to be invested in what is happening in the school which his children attend, to participate on the Board and wrestle with issues which impact his family, those who live in his immediate neighborhood and the families that attend the east side school which his children attend. Mr. Blatt’s position is that due to his address Mr. Fleming should not represent those views even though he is invested in the east side schools. Mr. Blatt’s position is that Mr. Fleming should have run for a west side position, thereby represent parents who are not his neighbors and who are not the parents of the students with whom his children associate every school day.


I cannot speak to Mr. Blatt’s motivation, whether he or a friend of his wants to fill the vacancy, or if he did not like a vote Mr. Fleming took, or Mr. Blatt simply wants the letter, not the spirit, of the divide upheld. I hope that it is not the former, and really hope it is not the second option which is very petty. And if it is the last noted, then the legalist position undermines the intention and spirit of why the divide was likely created in the code in the first place. Blatt’s position upholds the letter of the law while diminishing the intent and purpose of the divide. Blatt's view means that citizens whose children go to a school on the other side of the dividing line have less of an opportunity to participate in civic life than other parents whose children don’t go to a school across the divide.

In some respects Blatt’s position represents in a microcosm on one issue the dynamics of what is making the American political system increasingly dysfunctional.  


Unfortunately, the School Board’s response was to pass a motion to solve the issue by asking the City Council to do away with the east-west divide in the next election. The Board’s response is wrong headed as it means that one day the east side residents may well have all six positions on the School Board.


I support the rationale for the divide. What is wrong is not that there is a dividing line but how the dividing line is defined. The definition should be determined by which elementary school is associated with one's address. Why the elementary school…because there is only one high school for the whole city. Using the elementary school is a simple solution which allows a person to represent one’s immediate neighborhood and the parents of the children who attend the school your children attend.

The political leaders of Harrisonburg, as well as at the State and Federal levels, need to seek for reasoned and sensible solutions. Firm adherence to ideology destroys more than it builds, has brought about far more religious, civil wars and national conflicts than such dogmatism has brought about civility and peace.  We live in a dynamic society that evolves and changes. The laws, regulations and codes are not infallible…unfortunately our lower nature pulls us to become legalistic and act as if our views and dogma were flawless or divine writ.

We, our fellow citizens and our leaders must beyond legalism to recognize that sometimes a law, regulation and code can get out of keeping with its initial rationale. And when such awareness dawns, thoughtful reasonable changes need to occur, or reasonable exceptions granted. In  the Fleming matter, the legalistic position is wrongheaded. The Board’s response is equally wrongheaded and doesn’t support the rationale for the divide. I hope the City Council responds more wisely than both Blatt's supporters and the School Board. I hope that they will cease using a street as the divide and move to using what elementary school is associated with one's address.

I suspect many people will swiftly jump on the legalist position. I suspect that a number will support the Board's recommendation too. Both would be unfortunate. I also suspect that within the week Fleming will resign, a resignation that the legalists would interpret as justifying the righteousness of their cause when such righteousness doesn't exist. I also fear three things will occur after Fleming's resignation, a) the true political issue driving the writ will become evidenced by his replacement, b) that the City Council will drop the matter and not correct a flawed dividing line, and c) that Fleming will not again become involved in civic life. All three would be a tragedy, particularly the last two.