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Edward Cloutman, Who Argued the Case that Desegregated Dallas ISD, Dies at 78

Edward Cloutman's legal career spanned decades and touched some of the most painful parts of Dallas history. He died Friday at the age of 78.
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Edward Cloutman, who died Friday, and Sylvia Demarest received the Martin Luther King Jr. Justice Award from the Dallas Bar Association in recognition of their work. Pictured left to right, Dallas Bar Association president Bill Mateja, Demarest, Cloutman, and Judge Craig Smith, who introduced the two at the organization’s luncheon that day. Courtesy of the Dallas Bar Association

Edward Cloutman’s name may not be instantly recognized by many in Dallas, but his life’s work has had an impact on most people who have lived here over the last 50 years. Throughout his decades-long career, his fingerprints are on some of the most important local cases you can find, including some that changed the way Dallas was governed and how its school district taught. Cloutman died on Friday at the age of 78. A cause of death has not been announced.

Roger Albright, who worked with Cloutman at the firm Mullinax, Wells, Babb & Cloutman for a decade, said Monday afternoon that he counted Cloutman as both a friend and mentor. “He wasn’t trying to get his name in lights or do this for fame,” he said. “He wasn’t doing it for money. He was doing it because it was the right thing to do. He was absolutely committed to making the world a better place. He was a great lawyer.”

Judge Ken Molberg, who serves on the state’s Fifth District Court of Appeals, called Cloutman a “quiet civil rights hero of Dallas.”

“Perhaps some of you don’t know his name, but you’ve no doubt heard something about his years-long, valiant efforts to desegregate our school system in what’s commonly referred to as the Tasby case,” Molberg wrote, referring to Tasby v. Estes, the 1970 class action lawsuit that ended with a judicial order to integrate the district. “Brilliant and soft-spoken, Ed was a man of character—a long-serving soldier for justice who battled intolerance in all its embodiments.”

And it appears that the apple didn’t fall far from the tree. His mother Evelyn’s 2015 obituary talks of her lifelong work in human rights and women’s rights, pushing for the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment in Louisiana and working with the League of Women Voters.

Not long after graduating from LSU, Cloutman moved to Dallas, where he began working at Dallas Legal Services. The young lawyer was supervised by the attorney Sylvia Demarest, who would later become co-council in the suit against the school district. His first case involved a suit against El Centro College, where Black students were protesting a school policy.

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Edward Cloutman Courtesy of the Dallas Bar Association

“They were exercising their free speech rights very clearly, and they were getting disciplined and hassled by both the Dallas community college district as well as the county government,” Cloutman told Marvin Dulaney in an oral history project in 2011. “And I got thrown into that case very quickly, and it was some of the, ‘Welcome, here is your fire, put it out.’”

Cloutman’s career was full of big cases, many of which involved civil rights and labor law. But perhaps his biggest came in 1970 with Tasby vs. Estes, arguing against a Dallas school district that had successfully dragged its feet on desegregation. 

The Supreme Court ruled in Brown vs. the Board of Education more than 15 years earlier. Until 1961, Dallas was the largest southern city with a segregated school district. The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals repeatedly criticized the district for its delays. By 1961, a “stairstep plan” brought 18 Black children to first-grade classes in what had been segregated, Whites-only schools. By 1967, the district declared its schools desegregated.

Cloutman argued that the district didn’t change much. It “had good geographers who had malice in their hearts, but they knew how to keep kids separate.”

By 1970, Sam Tasby had named the superintendent, Nolan Estes, in a federal lawsuit accusing the district of maintaining segregation. Cloutman and Demarest represented Tasby in that suit. 

“Everything about the district was separate but not equal—from teacher recruitment, teacher assignment, administrator assignment, pay for teachers and administrators,” Cloutman recalled. “Just on paper, it made no sense.”

Cloutman said that grades and equipment inside the buildings were “radically separated” by color. “And this was by design.”

While the plaintiffs ultimately prevailed, it would take until 2003 before judicial oversight of the district finally ended. The documents in that suit, including Cloutman’s files, are kept at SMU’s Underwood Law Library. Last month, he and Demarest received the Martin Luther King Jr. Justice Award from the Dallas Bar Association in recognition of their work.

Dallas ISD Trustee Joyce Foreman said Cloutman struck her as a “fine man who was very thoughtful.” 

“Each time I saw him, we would talk about the desegregation case,” she said.

Cloutman also worked with the team behind Lipscomb vs. Wise, the first case against the city of Dallas seeking to dismantle the city council’s composition of 11 (counting the mayor) at-large seats. The suit was filed on behalf of Al Lipscomb and seventeen other plaintiffs. U.S. District Judge Eldon Mahon ruled that the at-large system diluted the Black vote and was unconstitutional. An 8-3 system that allowed for eight single-member districts and three at-large seats was approved and became part of the city charter in 1976.

By 1988, it became clear that equity was still hard to come by—only two Black council members had been elected, and no Latino members. Cloutman’s wife, Betsy Julian, and fellow Dallas Legal Services alumn Mike Daniel would later spearhead the case that convinced U.S. District Judge Jerry Buchmeyer to further change the council’s composition from its 8-3 composition to the current 14 single-member districts and one at-large mayoral seat in 1991. They filed the suit on behalf of Roy Williams and Marvin Crenshaw, with the Ledbetter Neighborhood Association later joining as a plaintiff.

As he built his career, Cloutman continued to “look out for the little guy,” Albright said. “He was absolutely committed to making the world a better place. He could have done anything he wanted in law, and he continued to fight for the little guy,” he said. “He was a great lawyer, and a wonderful human being, and Dallas is a worse place for him being gone.”

He continued to work in labor law, frequently representing unions. He represented Beverly Harrison in 2014 after Harrison was blocked from obtaining a job as a crossing guard because of a 40-year-old criminal conviction. He also defended the Transport Workers Union of America Local 556 in a job bias suit filed against the union and Southwest Airlines last year—the same suit that resulted in three in-house Southwest lawyers being ordered to attend religious freedom classes.

During the 2014 attempt to adopt a home-rule charter for Dallas ISD, he represented Alliance-AFT, a teachers union, in a suit that alleged the district’s process to fill the commissioner seats for the effort violated state law.

Union president Rena Honea said that union leadership felt that they were in very capable hands with Cloutman. “Ed was so very knowledgeable about what we were trying to do,” she said. “He provided solid advice that we all could understand and it made sense. He was available when we needed him and/or when we had questions.”

Albright said that after spending time working his way up to partner in Mullinax, Wells, Babb & Cloutman, the two eventually continued to share an office after the firm was dissolved. 

“He and I continued to work together at 3301 Elm, which was sort of considered the Red Dirt legal collective—we were the liberals, you know, for Dallas,” he said. Albright and Cloutman’s names appeared on a suit filed against the city by the Black Police Association in 1988 that ultimately changed the way Dallas promoted firefighters.

“He was very helpful to me, he said. “That was probably the first class action suit I had filed like that.” 

Albright also said that while Cloutman may have been “a gentleman,” he was still “the finest warrior I ever did work with.” But he was also known for being particularly cool-headed—”Steady Eddie,” Albright jokingly called him.

“If I got in with an opposing council that I thought was being a jerk, I would take it personally and plan my revenge,” he said, laughing. “Not so with Eddie. He was this absolute Southern gentleman and could remain on professional terms with everyone. He was easy going—something that might make the top of my head blow off, he would say, ‘C’mon now, here’s how we’re going to approach this. It’ll be OK.”

Albright says the legal world—and Dallas in general—has lost a man who continued to offer a steady, reassuring hand to anyone who needed it, whether it be Dallas voters, students, or a young hot-headed attorney.

“It’s such a great loss,” Albright said.

Funeral arrangements are pending.

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Bethany Erickson

Bethany Erickson

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Bethany Erickson is the senior digital editor for D Magazine. She's written about real estate, education policy, the stock market, and crime throughout her career, and sometimes all at the same time. She hates lima beans and 5 a.m. and takes SAT practice tests for fun.
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