That was how a happy Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange assessed the ruling last week when U.S. District Judge Lynwood Smith rejected arguments that Alabama’s property-tax system violated the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause.
At issue was the case of Lynch v. State of Alabama. In it, plaintiffs argued that the way property taxes are assessed and collected was designed to deprive rural students, most of whom were black, of an education equal to that available to students of wealthy parents or living in more affluent areas.
Smith acknowledged that Alabama’s 1901 Constitution was written to exclude blacks from the political process, and that it and the tax system based on it did leave “children of the rural poor, whether black or white … to struggle as best as they can in under-funded, dilapidated schools.” If it could not be proven that this was done to discriminate against those students, then as, Strange so callously put it, it is “the prerogative of the citizens of Alabama” to do it.
At the heart of this decision was the judge’s conclusion that what we have today was put in place because the Alabama Farm Bureau and Gov. George Wallace were (according to Smith) “able to ensure the enactment of legislation that protected the interests of the large, rural landholders, guaranteeing that some of Alabama’s wealthiest citizens paid some of its lowest taxes.”
In other words, it was greed, not racism, that motivated the authors of the measure and motivated the voters who approved it.
The 14th Amendment does not protect citizens from greed.
As a result, we all suffer. As Smith wrote, the “lack of an adequate education not only deprives those students of a fair opportunity to prepare themselves to compete in a global economy, but it also deprives the state of fully participating, well-educated adult citizens.”
Clearly unhappy that he was forced by law and Supreme Court precedent to rule as he did, Smith ended his ruling with a line from Bob Dylan’s 1962 song “Blowing in the Wind”: “How many times can a man turn his head, and pretend that he just doesn’t see.”
The answer, in Alabama at least, is “often.”
Because that is the answer, a better quote might be the remark Cassius made to Brutus in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar: “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves ...”