Updated at 2:59 p.m.
U.S. District Senior Judge Paul Friedman joined the bench in 1994. Less than a year later, he became presiding judge of a class action against the District of Columbia, in which officials were accused of failing to provide for students with special needs. Today, 17 years later, the case came to a close, an event Friedman called "historic."
"These class actions have been among the most important cases I've been involved with in my years on the bench," Friedman said today during a final fairness hearing on a settlement reached by the parties.
Friedman entered an order (PDF) dismissing the case several hours after the hearing this morning. During the hearing, he spoke about children affected by the school system's problems who appeared before him in earlier stages of the case and said that today he felt confident in the city's progress.
The case, known as Petties v. D.C., is one of six remaining class actions against the District over its ability to care for some of its most vulnerable residents, including students with special needs. The Petties case had two parts – first, the effectiveness of the city's system for paying non-D.C. public schools that took in local students with special needs, and second, the quality of transportation services provided to those children.
The plaintiffs and the city reached a settlement on the payment side of the case over the summer and Friedman ended court oversight of the transportation system on November 8. Today's hearing was about formally vacating past court orders and dismissing the class action. No objections were filed to the settlement agreement.
"We've come a long way," co-lead class counsel Steven Ney told Friedman this morning.
Still, Ney said in his remarks the city could do much more to improve the quality of special education within its public schools, with the goal of no longer needing to send so many children to other non-public schools. "There needs to be more local options," he said.
The case hit a minor snag earlier this month when a little boy was left on a bus unattended for more than six hours. Ney said school and city officials demonstrated that they had systems in place for responding to problems. But he agreed with Friedman that such incidents were "aberrational" and not a sign that deeper problems originally at play in the case were resurfacing.
Ending the case and court oversight is also a big win for the city, which has made ending the costly and time-consuming class actions a priority. The D.C. attorney general's office has estimated that the city has spent more than $1.7 million annually on fees related to those cases.
D.C. Attorney General Irvin Nathan attended today's hearing and said he hoped the resolution of this case would set precedent for seeking the dismissal of other cases.
"We're very grateful for the judge's patience in this matter," Nathan said.