TUCSON, Ariz. (AP) — A federal appeals court on Tuesday kept alive a legal challenge brought by former students who sued Arizona over a ban on ethnic studies in public schools and who will have a new chance to argue the law discriminates against Mexican Americans.
The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco upheld most of a lower court's decision. But it sent the case back to a federal court in Tucson, where a judge will decide whether the ban was enacted with discriminatory intent in violation of the U.S. Constitution.
Attorneys for the students claimed victory based on the part of the ruling that provides them new opportunity to go before a judge and make their case on a key provision of their argument. A spokesman for the Arizona Attorney General's Office said the agency was still reviewing the ruling and did not have immediate comment.
The law was passed by the Arizona Legislature in the same session that lawmakers enacted the landmark immigration legislation known as SB1070. It shuttered the Tucson Unified School District's popular Mexican-American studies program, sparking protests from students who they benefited from the courses. The majority of students in the district are Hispanic. The program taught them about historic events relating to the Mexican-American experience such as their indigenous roots and the Mexican Revolution.
The law prohibited courses if they promote resentment toward a race or a class of people, are designed primarily for people of a particular ethnic group or advocate ethnic solidarity instead of the treatment of people as individuals.
An attorney representing students who sued the state over the law said in court in January that the ban was enacted with a discriminatory goal and should be thrown out. State attorney Leslie Kyman Cooper denied there were discriminatory intentions, saying the law aimed to end divisive and segregated teaching.
Richard Martinez, a Tucson-based attorney representing the plaintiffs, said the appeals court ruling was a victory for his clients because they get a new opportunity to go before a judge and make their case.
U.S. Circuit Judge A. Wallace Tashima upheld most of the law in 2013, with the exception of one portion. Tashima also issued a summary judgment against the plaintiffs, ending the case before attorneys could argue in full why they believe the law was enacted with bad intentions.
Writing for the majority, Judge Jed S. Rakoff said the lower court abused its discretion by issuing a summary judgment instead of allowing the plaintiffs to make a case for their argument.
"We get to go to trial, and we get to prove our case," Martinez said.
Judge Richard Clifton concurred on most of the opinion issued Tuesday, but he opposed sending back the issue of discriminatory intent back to the lower court. "As the record stands now, there is not enough to justify the majority opinion's conclusion," Clifton wrote.
Although the Tucson district was forced to end its popular Mexican-American studies program, it has recently resumed teaching ethnic studies courses.
Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction Diane Douglas said in a news release that she strongly supports the law that is being challenged.