PHILADELPHIA (AP) — A federal appeals court has upheld a lower court's dismissal of a lawsuit alleging that the mayor of Philadelphia discriminated against Italian Americans in renaming the city's Columbus Day holiday to Indigenous Peoples' Day.
A U.S. District judge ruled a year ago that the plaintiffs, a council member and three Italian American heritage groups, hadn't been harmed by Mayor Jim Kenney's executive order, and therefore none of them had standing to sue over the issue.
Judge David Porter, writing for the three-judge panel of the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Friday, said the government “does not violate the Equal Protection Clause every time it affirms or celebrates an ethnicity. Otherwise, Columbus Day itself would arguably have been an equal protection violation — but of course it wasn't.''
As it stands, “Irish American city employees who wish to celebrate St. Patrick must take a personal day,'' and the city doesn't close for Yom Kippur or give time off for the Lunar New Year, the court said.
The plaintiffs might have a case if the city celebrated every ethnicity but "conspicuously excluded'' Italian Americans, but not from selective celebration of particular ethnicities alone, the court said. For plaintiffs seeking redress for such an "offense,'' the court said, "their remedy is political, not legal.''
Attorney George Bochetto, who filed the lawsuit, told The Philadelphia Inquirer in an email Friday evening that the plaintiffs are disappointed but he has “every intention'' of appealing the matter to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Many Italian Americans have embraced the 15th century explorer — once hailed as the discoverer of America — as a cultural hero and emblem of the city's deep Italian heritage. Kenney has said that despite centuries of veneration, Columbus had a “much more infamous'' history, enslaving Indigenous people and imposing harsh punishments.
Bochetto's lawsuit on the holiday argued there was a pattern of the city targeting Italian Americans, citing attempts to cover and remove a Columbus statue in south Philadelphia and removal of a statue of ex-mayor and police commissioner Frank Rizzo at the municipal services building near City Hall after it became a target for protests.
Bochetto won a separate lawsuit against the city last month when a state court ordered the removal of a box covering the south Philadelphia Columbus statue. The statue, which dates to 1876 and was presented to the city by the Italian American community to commemorate the nation's centennial, was covered in June 2020 after it became a focus of racial justice protests following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
Kenney argued for removal of the statue as a matter of public safety, and a city arts panel and a historical commission agreed, but a judge reversed the city's decision, citing a lack of evidence that the statue's removal was necessary to protect the public. Before its removal, the box covering the statue had been painted in green, white and red bands, mirroring the Italian flag, at the request of the city council member who represents the district.
By JEFF McMURRAY
Arizona officials refer to a notoriously congested stretch of desert highway through tribal land as the Wild Horse Pass Corridor, a label that's less about horses than the bustling casino by the same name located just north of where the interstate constricts to four lanes.
With the Gila River Indian Community's backing, the state allocated or raised about $600 million of a nearly $1 billion plan that would widen the most bottleneck-inducing, 26-mile section of I-10 on the route between Phoenix and Tucson.
But its bid for federal grant money under the new infrastructure law to finish the job fell short, leaving some advocates for road construction accusing the Biden administration of devaluing those projects to focus on repairs and mass transit.
“Upset would be the right terminology,'' Casa Grande Mayor Craig McFarland said of his reaction when he learned the project won't receive one of the law's first Mega Grants the U.S. Department of Transportation will announce this week. ``We thought we had done a good job putting the proposal together. We thought we had checked all the boxes.''
The historic federal investment in infrastructure has reenergized dormant transportation projects, but the debate over how to prioritize them has only intensified in the 14 months since President Joe Biden signed the measure.
The law follows decades of neglect in maintaining the nation's roads, bridges, water systems and airports. Research by Yale University economist Ray Fair estimates a sharp decline in U.S. infrastructure investment has caused a $5.2 trillion shortfall. The entire law totals $1 trillion, and it seeks to not only remedy that dangerous backlog of projects but also build out broadband internet nationwide and protect against damage caused by climate change.
Some of the money, however, has gone to new highway construction — much of it from the nearly 30% increases Arizona and most other states are receiving over the next five years in the formula funding they can use to prioritize their own transportation needs.
For specific projects, many of the biggest awards available under the law are through various highly competitive grants. The Department of Transportation received around $30 billion worth of applications for just the first $1 billion in Mega Grants being awarded, spokesperson Dani Simons said.
Another $1 billion will be available each of the next four years before the funding runs out. Still, the first batch has been closely watched for signals about the administration's preferences.
Jeff Davis, senior fellow at the Eno Center for Transportation, said it's already clear that the Biden administration plans to direct a greater share of its discretionary transportation funding to “non-highway projects'' than the Trump administration did. However, with so much more total infrastructure money to work with, Davis said, “a rising tide lifts all boats.''
For example, one of the projects that the administration told Congress it had chosen for a Mega Grant will widen Interstate 10 _ but in Mississippi, not Arizona. Davis said the department likely preferred the Mississippi project due to its significantly lower price tag. This year's Mega Grants combine three different award types into a single application, one of which caters specifically to rural and impoverished communities.
Some of the winning grants are for bridges, while others are for mass transit — including improvements to Chicago's commuter train system and concrete casing for a rail tunnel in Midtown Manhattan.
Along with the nine projects selected, transportation department staff listed seven others as “highly recommended'' — a distinction Davis said makes them clear front-runners to secure money next year. Arizona's I-10 widening effort was part of a third group of 13 projects labeled as “recommended,'' which Davis said could put them in contention for future funding unless they're surpassed by even stronger applicants.
But such decisions remain largely subjective.
Advocates for regions such as the Southwest, where the population is growing but more spread out, argue that their need for new or wider highways is just as big of a national priority as a major city's need for more subway stations or bicycle lanes.
Arizona state Rep. Teresa Martinez, a Republican who represents Casa Grande at the southern end of the corridor, said she was livid when she heard from a congressional office that the administration might have turned down the I-10 project because it didn't have enough “multimodal'' components.
“What does that even mean?'' she said.“.... They were looking to fund projects that have bike paths and trailways instead of a major interstate?``
Testifying in March before the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg assured Arizona Democratic U.S. Sen. Mark Kelly that he understood the state's unique highway needs and that his department wouldn't ``stand in the way of a capacity expansion where it's appropriate.''
Some Republicans, however, remain skeptical, in part due to a memo the Federal Highway Administration distributed in December 2021, a month after Biden signed the bill. The document suggested states should usually ``prioritize the repair, rehabilitation, reconstruction, replacement, and maintenance of existing transportation infrastructure'' over new road construction.
Although administration officials dismissed the memo as an internal communication, not a policy decision, critics alleged they were trying to circumvent Congress and influence highway construction decisions traditionally left to states under their formula funding.
Last month the Government Accountability Office concluded the memo carried the same weight as a formal rule, which Congress could challenge by passing a resolution of disapproval. Sen. Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia, the ranking Republican on the Environment and Public Works Committee, pledged to write one.
According to figures the Federal Highway Administration provided to The Associated Press, 12 capacity-expansion projects have received funding through previous competitive grants since the memo was issued. States also have used their formula funding toward 763 such projects totaling $7.1 billion.
As for the Arizona project, some state officials have expressed plans to move ahead on their own if they can't secure federal money — although they're not giving up on that, either. Considering that one crash can back up traffic for miles between the state's two largest cities, they say it remains a top priority.
McFarland, the Casa Grande mayor, said perhaps the next application will stress some of the other components of the $360 million request besides the highway widening — including bike lanes that tribal leaders have long sought for some of the overpasses.
“If you read the tea leaves, you can see where they're at,'' McFarland said.“... It's a competitive process. You don't always get it the first time you ask for it. So, ask again.''
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — Native American leaders said creating a special $50 million trust fund to help finance educational programs within tribal communities in New Mexico, where there are the lowest rates of reading and math proficiency in the country, would be a big step toward improving outcomes for their students.
The leaders packed a legislative committee room Friday at the state Capitol, with many testifying that the proposed trust fund would be an investment in their people and a signal to students that the state believes in them.
Laguna Pueblo Gov. Wilfred Herrera Jr. pointed to a landmark education lawsuit that centered on the state's failures to provide an adequate education to at-risk students, including Native Americans, English language learners, students with disabilities and those from low-income families. Those groups make up a majority of the state's student population.
In the nearly five years since the court ruled the state was falling short of its constitutional obligations, Herrera said legislative efforts and funding allocations to address the public education system's deficiencies have been piecemeal.
“I liken this to putting away resources for our children for the future,” he said of the proposed trust fund. “If we do things right and manage it, administer it, let it grow, we stand to achieve things.''
New Mexico ranks last in fourth- and eighth-grade reading and math. The most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress revealed just 21% of fourth-graders could read at grade level and fewer than 1 in 5 students could do grade-level math. For eighth-graders, proficiencies in reading and math were even more dismal.
Supporters also pointed out when asked by lawmakers that Native American students have the lowest graduation rates among their New Mexico peers.
Democratic Rep. Derrick Lente of Sandia Pueblo, one of the bill's sponsors, said the trust fund would be established with a one-time allotment of state money. After a couple of years of earning interest, annual disbursements starting with the 2025 fiscal year could help tribes build their own educational programs.
Siting New Mexico's financial windfall, Lente said: “This is the time to do it.''
The idea is for tribes to put the money toward programs they believe would have the most benefits for students, he said, rather than have the state dictate how the money is spent.
Many of the Native American leaders and librarians who work with tribal communities said one focus would be on revitalizing Native languages and weaving cultural heritage into lessons.
A separate measure that also won the committee's approval Friday would amend the Indian Education Act to funnel 50% of the state's Indian education fund to New Mexico tribes. Tribes would be able to carry over unused allocations.
In the landmark case known as Yazzie v. Martinez, the court pointed to low graduation rates, dismal student test proficiencies and high college remediation rates as indicators of how New Mexico was not meeting its constitutional obligation to ensure all students were college and career ready.
The court suggested public school funding levels, financing methods and oversight by the state Public Education Department were deficient. However, the court stopped short of prescribing specific remedies, and deferred decisions on how to meet obligations to lawmakers and the executive branch.
The education department last year shared with tribal leaders a draft plan to address the ruling, but many leaders said at the time it would not be enough.
In recent weeks, education officials with Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham's administration confirmed they still were working to finalize the plan.
Supporters of the Native education bills say the intent is to encourage tribes to plan, design and implement their own community-based education programs to complement what children are learning in school.
The proposed trust fund comes just after U.S. Interior Secretary Debra Haaland visited New Mexico, where she grew up and is an enrolled Laguna Pueblo member, on the yearlong “Road to Healing'' tour for victims and survivors of abuse at government-backed boarding schools.
“Tribal communities have the experts and I think we owe that to the pueblos to decide how they want to implement their programs,'' said Rep. Yanira Gurrola, who has worked as a bilingual teacher. “And I think hopefully this will be something that sets a precedent for communities.''