It could be a "one-and-done" session, but a new round of mediation talks over Memphis city and Shelby County schools merger lawsuit could continue until a Nov. 27 deadline if there's progress.
It was a closed door meeting believed to be designed for plaintiff, defendants and their attorneys to lay all their cards on the table in the city and county school merger lawsuit. The dealer was federal Judge Samuel Hardy Mays, Jr., assuming the role of a mediator rather than the decider in hopes of cutting a big deck of disagreements down to only a few.
Keeping mum with the media, the mayors of the six Shelby County suburbs walked as if in a somber processional toward the federal courthouse in Memphis. It was the Monday afternoon resumption of mediation talks searching for a possible settlement of the city and county schools merger lawsuit.
But, did it mark the start of the "last best chance" for agreement before Judge Mays would resume full control over the outcome? Noted veteran mediator, Memphis attorney Hayden Lait, who is not involved the case, says now is the time for all sides to be "creative" in finding a collective solution in their fourth mediation session in more than a year.
"People constantly re-evaluating their positions in these situations," Lait said. "Again, the mediation gives them an opportunity to carve out a solution that the court can't do for them. The court's either going to say it's either this way or that way and that's it. I know these lawyers. They're some of the finest lawyers in the city. Also they've got some smart clients. So, it's the clients that are driving them here. Hopefully the clients are asking them questions. What are our options? What are our alternatives?"
But, what's going to make this round of mediation anymore successful than the three others that fell apart? As FOX13 News reported for weeks, the costs in litigation for all parties continues to rise, with municipalities already paying hundreds of thousands each in attorney fees while at the same time absorbing taxpayers costs to sue themselves wrung up under the name of the Shelby County Commission as one of the plaintiffs in the case.
That's not counting, if it happens, an expected protracted federal trial in January regarding a constitutional battle over alleged resegregation allegations. All of this takes place against the backdrop of a still forthcoming ruling from Judge Mays on the constitutionality of the state law that paved the way for the creation of municipal school districts.
Lait, who has conducted more than 1,200 mediations, says it is unusual in most mediation cases the sitting judge in the case is also acting as a mediator. However, Judge Mays' hands-on involvement can produce certain advantages to those interested in a settlement.
"If they brought in someone from the outside, it would probably take him a little bit of time to get up to speed on this," Lait said. "Plus an outsider wouldn't have what we call the "robe factor". Judge Mays is the judge and he's got that factor right there. Judge Mays can, if he wants in the mediation, send some signals that say, one side says, well, you know we really want to do it this way and Judge Mays could sent a signal, well, if we don't settle it, it's not going to be done this way."
"It's unusual Judge Mays is mediating, but, I think he is the one to do it."
By order of Judge Mays all participating parties are under a gag order while the mediation is underway.