Clinical Professor Randall Schmidt, an employment discrimination specialist, was honored by the National Lawyers Guild of Chicago for his tireless work on behalf of Chicago’s public school teachers, students, parents, and other school employees.
Schmidt, along with colleagues from private law firms, was honored with the Arthur Kinoy People’s Law Award on November 8 for a series of cases fighting the actions of Chicago Public Schools. The district announced at the end of last school year that it would close 47 elementary schools, most of them in minority communities. Schmidt and his co-counsel argued in U.S. District Court, Northern District of Illinois, that African-American and special needs children were disproportionately affected and hurt by the closings. Their appeals were not successful, and the schools stayed closed, but Schmidt said the fight was a worthy one.
“We fought, we did the best we could, and the court ruled against us,” he said. Timing was not on his side, either. Though the cases were filed before the end of the school year, the evidentiary hearing on Schmidt’s request for a preliminary injunction to stop the school closings was heard in mid-July, just weeks before the start of the academic year. By that time, the schools already had been physically shuttered, equipment was moved, and students were assigned to new buildings. “We were so close to schools opening for the following school year, and ultimately there was no way to undo it,” he said.
Despite the high stress of the closings cases, Schmidt’s co-counsel Thomas Geoghegan said Schmidt was “always the most unflappable, the calmest, the most focused of all of us. I was so relieved we had an anchor like that on our legal team. He is a consummate lawyer, a very congenial person, and best of all, in any emergency, you can count on him to keep his head.”
Schmidt still has two cases pending in district court related to discrimination in Chicago’s public schools. First, he’s representing three teachers laid off in 2011, alleging that the layoffs were discriminatory because schools with a higher percentage of African-American teachers were targeted. Schmidt and his team expect to file a motion for class certification early next year so the case can proceed on behalf of all African-American teachers laid off in 2011.
A separate pending case focuses on 2012’s so-called school “turnarounds,” when the district chose 11 schools in need of reform and terminated all their personnel. Again, a disproportionate number of black teachers and staff were fired, Schmidt said. His team has field a motion for class certification, and they expect a decision early next year.
Schmidt agreed that public education in Chicago is troubled and change is needed. But that change needs to be fair and non-discriminatory, he said. “What concerns me is that it seems the burden of education reform is being borne by African-American students, teachers and communities.” Plus, he added, schools are a pillar of life in minority communities; a robust school community is needed as a counterpoint to gangs and other negative choices children have.
Schmidt’s co-counsel on these cases and fellow award honorees are: Robert Bloch and Josiah A. Groff of Dowd, Bloch & Bennett; Geoghegan, Sean Morales-Doyle, and Michael Persoon of Despres, Schwartz & Geoghegan; and Robin Potter, M. Nieves Bolanos, Alenna Bolin, Patrick Cowlin, Matt Farmer, Jim Green, and Shankar Ramamurthy of Robin Potter & Associates, PC.
Several Law School students worked or are working on these cases too. They are: Cara Chomski, ’13, Alex Cross, ’14, Nascine Howell, ’14, Isabella Janusz, ’14, Benjamin Kelly, ’14, Jay Kumar, ’14, Jason Meade, ’14, Christian Mejia, ’14, Rebecca Rickett, ’15, Josh Singh, ’14, and Jonathan Wiggins, ’13.
“Professor Schmidt is a dedicated attorney who works tirelessly to make a difference in his clients’ lives,” said Howell, one of the students. “Working with him has been a remarkable and rewarding experience."
Schmidt said he was honored to receive an award named for Kinoy, a civil rights lawyer who died in 2003 at age 82. Kinoy was most famously one of the lawyers for the Chicago Seven and a longtime civil rights activist. During the 1950s Red Scare, he defended people accused of communist activities, including Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, who were put to death after an espionage conspiracy conviction. He argued several cases before the Supreme Court, including U.S. v. U.S. District Court, when he successfully argued that President Richard Nixon was wrong to assert that warrantless domestic wiretaps of political organizations were constitutional. He also co-founded the Center for Constitutional Rights.
Kinoy “was one of my heroes when I was in law school,” said Schmidt, who graduated from the Law School in 1979. “He inspired me because of what he stood for, and the things he believed in, namely, justice for the disadvantaged. It means a lot to receive an award named for him.”