Education in the 2008-09 U.S. Supreme Court Term

By Mark Walsh — October 02, 2008 4 min read
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I have the following article in next week’s issue of Education Week about education cases I am following in the new U.S. Supreme Court term. I have added links to lower-court rulings or Supreme Court filings where available.

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The 2008-09 term of the U.S. Supreme Court, which begins this week, has a docket that includes education-related cases involving employment and sex discrimination, the rights of teachers’ unions, and legal immunity for public officials, including educators. The justices will continue to add cases to be heard during the new term for the next several months. These are among the cases already accepted for review:

Title IX
In what could be the most significant case for education, the justices will decide whether Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 provides the exclusive legal remedy for cases of sex discrimination in public schools.

The parents of a Massachusetts kindergartner who allegedly faced sexual harassment from a 3rd grader on her school bus are seeking to be able to sue school officials under a broader federal civil rights law after their Title IX claim was rejected. Claims brought under Section 1983, which derives from the Civil Rights Act of 1871, typically allege a violation of the equal-protection clause of the 14th Amendment. Such a constitutional claim doesn’t necessarily face the same legal hurdles that Title IX claims face.

The case arises out of claims that officials of the 4,460-student Barnstable school district failed to do enough to address the harassment of the kindergartner. The federal appeals court that ruled against the family’s Title IX claim held in the same decision that the family’s Section 1983 claim was foreclosed by the more recent federal statute.

Fitzgerald v. Barnstable School Committee (Case No. 07-1125) is scheduled for argument Dec. 2.
The family’s merits brief is here.
A friend-of-the-court brief on the family’s side by the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Women’s Law Center is here.
The school district’s response brief isn’t due until Oct. 22.

Teachers’ Unions
The court will review an Idaho law that bars school districts and other local government agencies from making deductions from employees’ paychecks for political causes.
The Idaho Education Association, its Pocatello affiliate, and several other public-employee unions in the state, which rely on the deductions to help pay for their political action committees, challenged the law as an infringement of their First Amendment rights of free speech and association.

A federal appeals court agreed with the unions and struck down the Idaho law as hampering their political speech. The Supreme Court accepted the state’s request to review the ruling.
Ysursa v. Pocatello Education Association (No. 07-869) will be argued Nov. 3.
The state of Idaho’s merits brief is here.
The unions’ response brief is here.

Employment Discrimination
A case stemming from the central office of the Nashville-Davidson County, Tenn., school system will provide the basis for a potentially important ruling on job discrimination.

The question is whether Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 protects a worker from being dismissed because she cooperated with her employer’s internal investigation of alleged sexual harassment of another worker. Vicky S. Crawford, a district payroll coordinator who had cooperated in the investigation of her boss, the director of employee relations, was dismissed a few months later for alleged financial improprieties. Ms. Crawford claimed it was a case of retaliation, but two lower federal courts held that her situation was not covered by a Title VII provision meant to protect workers who participate in internal investigations. [The 6th Circuit’s opinion is here.]

The justices agreed to review those rulings in Crawford v. Metropolitan Government of Nashville and Davidson County (No. 06-1595), which will be argued Oct. 8.
Crawford’s brief is here.
Nashville-Davidson County’s response brief is here.
A friend-of-the-court brief on Crawford’s side by the Tennessee Education Association is here.
A brief on the county government’s side by the National School Boards Association is here.

Legal Immunity
School administrators and teachers usually don’t have much reason to follow Supreme Court cases about the constitutionality of a police search of a home for illegal drugs. But such a case from Utah presents an important question about qualified immunity, the principle that public officials such as school principals or police officers do not face liability as long as their challenged actions did not violate clearly established law.

In Pearson v. Callahan (No. 07-751), the justices asked the parties to use the case of a challenged police search to also address a Supreme Court precedent that requires lower courts weighing civil rights challenges to first decide whether any constitutional violation occurred before deciding whether the official merits qualified immunity.

The theory under that 2001 decision, Saucier v. Katz, is that without courts first ruling on constitutional questions, the law would go undeveloped in many areas. But many legal commentators have criticized the ruling, and a decision by the justices to overturn it in this case would make it easier for school administrators and other officials to stop lawsuits against them earlier in the legal process. [This Education Week story goes into further detail.]
The most relevant briefs on the qualified-immunity issue are from the U.S. solicitor general here, from the ACLU here, and from the Texas Association of School Boards here.

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