560 F.3d 22 (1st Cir. 2009), 08-1735, Comfort v. Lynn School Committee

Docket Nº:08-1735.
Citation:560 F.3d 22
Party Name:Samantha J. COMFORT, etc., et al., Plaintiffs, Appellants, v. LYNN SCHOOL COMMITTEE et al., Defendants, Appellees.
Case Date:March 12, 2009
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the First Circuit
 
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560 F.3d 22 (1st Cir. 2009)

Samantha J. COMFORT, etc., et al., Plaintiffs, Appellants,

v.

LYNN SCHOOL COMMITTEE et al., Defendants, Appellees.

No. 08-1735.

United States Court of Appeals, First Circuit.

March 12, 2009

         Heard Jan. 7, 2009.

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[Copyrighted Material Omitted]

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         Chester Darling, with whom Michael Williams, Robert J. Roughsedge, and Citizens for the Preservation of Constitutional Rights, Inc. were on brief, for appellants.

          Maura T. Healey, Assistant Attorney General, with whom Martha Coakley, Attorney General, Jeffrey D. Clements and Adam J. Hollingsworth, Assistant Attorneys General, and John C. Mihos, City Solicitor, were on consolidated brief, for appellees.

          Before TORRUELLA, SELYA and LIPEZ, Circuit Judges.

          SELYA, Circuit Judge.

         We are called upon today to revisit a case that we thought had gone to its eternal rest. The tale follows.

          Nearly six years ago the district court entered judgment for the defendants in a civil action seeking to strike down, on constitutional grounds, a school transfer/student assignment policy (the Policy) that explicitly considers race as a determining factor in student placement. Comfort v. Lynn Sch. Comm. ( Comfort I ), 283 F.Supp.2d 328, 386-87 (D.Mass.2003). This court, sitting en banc, upheld that judgment (and, thus, upheld the Policy) by a one-vote margin. Comfort v. Lynn Sch. Comm. ( Comfort III ), 418 F.3d 1 (1st Cir.2005) (en banc).1 The Supreme Court denied the plaintiffs' ensuing petition for a writ of certiorari, 546 U.S. 1061, 126 S.Ct. 798, 163 L.Ed.2d 627 (2005), and the judgment

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became final. That apparently ended the matter.

         But appearances can be deceiving, see Aesop, The Wolf in Sheep's Clothing (circa 550 B.C.), and that axiom proved to be applicable here. Following the Supreme Court's decision in a different case, see Parents Involved in Cmty. Sch. v. Seattle Sch. Dist. No. 1, 551 U.S. 701, 127 S.Ct. 2738, 168 L.Ed.2d 508 (2007), the Comfort plaintiffs invoked Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 60(b)(5) and asked the district court for relief from the final judgment. The court denied that motion. Comfort v. Lynn Sch. Comm. ( Comfort IV ), 541 F.Supp.2d 429, 433 (D.Mass.2008). The plaintiffs now appeal. We affirm.

         We briefly chronicle the events leading up to this appeal. The underlying litigation began in 1999, when the Comfort family and other similarly situated families sued the Lynn School Committee and a number of allied defendants for, among other things, an injunction to end further use of the Policy (which articulated one aspect of the City of Lynn's method of effecting student placements in the public schools). The plaintiffs alleged that the Policy was discriminatory because it explicitly relied on race as a criterion for student placement.

         After extensive proceedings, the district court upheld the Policy and entered judgment for the defendants. Comfort I, 283 F.Supp.2d at 400. On appeal, a panel of this court disagreed; it declared the Policy unconstitutional and reversed the judgment. Comfort v. Lynn Sch. Comm. ( Comfort II ), No. 03-2415, 2004 WL 2348505 (1st Cir. Oct.20, 2004). The defendants moved successfully for rehearing en banc, and the en banc court withdrew the panel opinion. See Comfort v. Lynn Sch. Comm., No. 03-2415 (Nov. 24, 2004) (unpublished order). After further briefing and oral argument, a divided en banc court reinstated the original district court judgment. Comfort III, 418 F.3d at 23.

         Even though the Supreme Court denied the plaintiffs' petition for certiorari, 546 U.S. 1061, 126 S.Ct. 798, 163 L.Ed.2d 627 (2005), the Court later granted certiorari in Parents Involved, 547 U.S. 1177, 126 S.Ct. 2351, 165 L.Ed.2d 277 (2006). The Court decided that case adversely to the respondent school district, striking down a school transfer/student assignment policy that bore a distinct resemblance to the Policy. See Parents Involved, 127 S.Ct. at 2768. In the process, the Court significantly restricted a school district's ability to assign students based on racial factors. Id. at 2787-88. The Court mentioned the Comfort case several times, including a flat statement that the decision in Comfort III was " inimical to the Constitution." Id. at 2774 (Thomas, J., concurring).

         Buoyed by the holding, rationale, and language of Parents Involved, the Comfort plaintiffs moved for relief from judgment in the district court. They maintained that Parents Involved had uprooted the legal foundation on which the decision in Comfort III rested and that, therefore, allowing the judgment to stand would be grossly inequitable. The district court denied the motion. See Comfort IV, 541 F.Supp.2d at 433. This timely appeal followed.

          In the ordinary course, we review an order granting or denying relief from judgment under Rule 60(b) for abuse of discretion. See, e.g., Honneus v. Donovan, 691 F.2d 1, 2 (1st Cir.1982). The standard is different, however, when an appeal is premised on an abstract question of law, such as a question about the meaning or interpretation of the rule itself. In that event, the appealed ruling engenders de novo review. See

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Harvey v. Johanns, 494 F.3d 237, 240 (1st Cir.2007). So it is here.

         In order to put this appeal into perspective, we begin with a few comments about finality. We then turn to the plaintiffs' motion.

         Courts long have recognized that finality is fundamental to our judicial system. See, e.g., Guerrero-Santana v. Gonzales, 499 F.3d 90, 92 (1st Cir.2007); United States v. Boch Olds., Inc., 909 F.2d 657, 660 (1st Cir.1990). Once litigation has run its course and all available avenues of appeal have been exhausted, the parties must be able to depend upon the certainty and stability of the resultant judgment. See United States v. Rodríguez, 527 F.3d 221, 225 (1st Cir.2008); Boch Olds., 909 F.2d at 660.

         The importance of finality extends beyond the expectations of the parties involved in a particular case. Finality is an " institutional value[ ] that transcend[s] the litigants' parochial interests." Oakes v. United States, 400 F.3d 92, 97 (1st Cir.2005). This institutional interest dictates that the principle of finality should hold sway even when newly emergent decisions...

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