K-12 and the Supreme Court: Highlights From 2015-16
The high court’s recently concluded term had the potential to be more momentous for education than it turned out to be—the Feb. 13 death of Justice Antonin Scalia at age 79 dominated the second half and resulted in deadlocks for two major cases of importance to educators, one involving teachers’ union fees and the other, undocumented immigrant parents of U.S. citizen children. Still, the court issued important rulings on affirmative action, public employees, and voting rights.
The court upheld the race-conscious admissions program at the University of Texas at Austin, holding 4-3 that the white applicant who challenged the plan was not denied equal protection of the law. The majority in Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin said that “considerable deference” is owed to a university in defining the intangible characteristics, such as student-body diversity, that are central to its identity and educational mission. The court stressed that a university must continually scrutinize its admissions program to assess whether changing demographics have undermined the need for a race-conscious policy.
In a challenge brought by numerous religious schools and colleges to the contraceptive-care mandate stemming from the federal Affordable Care Act, the eight-member court sought to play mediator. In an unsigned opinion in Zubik v. Burwell, the court suggested that the religious groups and the federal government both agreed it would be “feasible” for the contraceptive care to be provided by the organizations’ insurance companies without the religious groups having to provide notice to the government that they object—on religious grounds—to providing the coverage themselves.
A 4-4 deadlock came in United States v. Texas, a case about the Obama administration’s program of deportation relief for undocumented immigrant parents of children who are U.S. citizens (as well as an expansion of an older program for undocumented immigrants who arrived as children). The case was watched in education as schools cope with a range of implications of the immigration debate. The court’s tie vote in this case effectively ended the Deferred Action for Parents of Americans program during President Barack Obama’s time in office, because it upheld a nationwide injunction blocking the program issued by a federal district judge in Texas. The future of such immigration relief depends on the next president, and the next justice.
In McDonnell v. United States, the court unanimously threw out the “honest services” fraud conviction of former Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell and thus made it more difficult for federal prosecutors to win corruption convictions against state and local officials. The court said the case was governed by its decision in a 1999 case, United States v. Sun-Diamond Growers of California, in which Scalia had cited—as the type of official act that would not violate the federal fraud statute—a token gift to the U.S. secretary of education during a school visit.
In a 6-2 ruling in Heffernan v. City of Paterson, the court held that a New Jersey police officer who was demoted because of his superiors’ misimpression that he was backing a political rival to the incumbent mayor could challenge the demotion as a violation of his First Amendment rights of free speech and association. The case has implications for teachers and other public employees as well as law-enforcement officers. The court held that even though the officer wasn’t seeking to engage in speech on a matter of public concern, he was harmed by the city’s retaliatory demotion.
When the court heard arguments in Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association in January, it appeared that five justices were prepared to overrule the 1977 precedent of Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, which authorized public-employee unions to collect services fees from nonmembers. Instead, with Scalia’s death, the justices deadlocked 4-4 in the case. The tie vote set no national precedent, but it preserved the status quo—keeping Abood in place and giving teachers’ unions a huge practical victory.
The justices ruled unanimously in Evenwel v. Abbott that states and local jurisdictions, including school districts, may use total population to draw their electoral districts. The court rejected an argument that the “one-person, one-vote” principle required jurisdictions instead to draw lines based on the citizen-voting-age population. That method would tend to boost the electoral power of rural voters and diminish that of urban areas, especially in state legislatures where children’s interests are often at stake. The principles also apply to elected school boards that have single-member voting districts.
Vol. 35, Issue 36, Page 21Published in Print: July 20, 2016, as U.S. Supreme Court’s 2015-16 Term