Education and the Supreme Court: The 2008-09 Term

By Mark Walsh — July 02, 2009 5 min read
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The U.S. Supreme Court term that just concluded turned out to be quite a busy one for education, with several cases directly involving school districts and others with implications for districts as employers, for school administrators, and for teachers’ unions. Here are the Top Ten:

Fourth Amendment - Student Rights
Safford Independent School District v. Redding
The justices ruled 8-1 that the strip-search of a middle school student by school officials looking for prescription-strength ibuprofen violated the Fourth Amendment. The majority said such strip-searches were justified only when school officials had “specific suspicions” that a student was hiding contraband in his or her underwear or other “intimate parts.” The court ruled 7-2, however, that the officials involved in the search of Arizona student Savana Redding deserved qualified immunity because the case law on strip-searches was unclear at the time.

Individuals with Disabilities Education Act
Forest Grove School District. v. T.A.
The justices ruled 6-3 that the main federal special education law authorizes reimbursement for private school tuition, even when a child with a disability has never received special education services from a public school district. The majority said that 1997 amendments to the IDEA intended to rein in the costs of private school placements did not remove the power of hearing officers and federal judges to order such reimbursements under the proper circumstances.

Title IX/Section 1983
Fitzgerald v. Barnstable School Committee
The court ruled unanimously that Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 does not bar victims of sex discrimination in schools from pursuing claims under an older federal civil rights law, known as Section 1983. The court said the two statutes sometimes cover different legal targets or offer different remedies, and the passage of Title IX was not meant to foreclose claims under the older civil rights law.

Equal Educational Opportunities Act of 1974
Horne v. Flores
The court ruled 5-4 that two lower courts did not properly consider changed circumstances in the delivery of English-language learning both in the state of Arizona and in the Nogales Unified School District when they found a violation of the federal Equal Educational Opportunities Act and ordered increased spending on the state’s ELL program. The majority ordered the lower courts to consider at least four factors on remand: a change in methodology at the state level for English-language learners; the role of the federal No Child Left Behind Act on the state’s program; the record of structural and management improvements in the Nogales district; and the role of an overall education funding increase in Nogales.

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964
Ricci v. DeStefano
The court ruled 5-4 that before employers may take a race-conscious action for the asserted purpose of avoiding an unintentional disparate racial impact, it must have a “strong basis in evidence” to believe it will face liability in a disparate-impact suit under Title VII. The majority held that the city of New Haven, Conn., had to abide by the results of a promotional exam for firefighters in which no black candidates scored high enough to qualify for promotion.

Crawford v. Metropolitan Government of Nashville
In a case involving a school district central office, the justices held unanimously that Title VII protects workers who face retaliation for participating in an internal investigation. In an opinion signed by seven members of the court, Justice David H. Souter said Title VII’s anti-retaliation provision covers a school system payroll specialist who complained about crude sexual conduct by her boss during an internal investigation launched on behalf of another employee. The payroll specialist, Vicky Crawford, was dismissed from her job, which she claimed was retaliation.

Public Employee Unions
Ysursa v. Pocatello Education Association
The justices ruled 6-3 that a state’s restriction on school district and other local government employee payroll deductions for politics does not violate the free speech rights of unions. The case involved Idaho’s Voluntary Contributions Act, which prohibits school districts and other local governments from using their payroll systems to let workers voluntarily deduct amounts from their paychecks for political causes, such as for the unions’ political action funds.

Qualified Immunity for Public Officials
Pearson v. Callahan
The justices unanimously used a case challenging a police search to effectively overrule one of the court’s precedents and make it easier for judges to grant educators, the police, and other government officials immunity from lawsuits challenging their official actions. The justices eased the requirements of a 2001 decision, Saucier v. Katz, that had required courts weighing qualified immunity claims against public officials to first decide whether a constitutional violation had even occurred.

Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967
Gross v. FBL Financial Services Inc.
The court ruled 5-4 that a plaintiff bringing a disparate-treatment claim under the age-discrimination law must generally prove that age was the central motivating factor for an adverse employment action. It said the statute did not permit the kind of burden-shifting exercise the court has approved for the main federal job-discrimination law--Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Voting Rights Act of 1965
Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District No. 1 v. Holder
The justices ruled unanimously that all local governments, including school districts, in states and jurisdictions covered by Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, which requires federal approval of any changes in voting procedures, have the right to seek “bailout,” or exemption, from the requirements of the law. The ruling came in a case in which the justices suggested they had strong constitutional concerns about the 2006 renewal of the voting-rights law, but they stopped short of overturning it.

A version of this news article first appeared in The School Law Blog.