So Far, Supreme Court’s Docket Is Light on Education

By Mark Walsh — October 04, 2000 4 min read

Last year’s U.S. Supreme Court term was one of the most significant in years, both generally and for education law, most legal analysts agree. The court issued rulings barring student-led prayers at school football games, upholding federal aid for educational equipment in religious schools, and allowing the Boy Scouts to exclude homosexuals.

The court’s new term, which was to begin Oct. 2, is looking a bit more humdrum.

Nevertheless, the high court always has at least a handful of cases that educators keep an eye on, and the current term is no exception. One case on the court’s docket directly involves a K-12 school. In Brentwood Academy v. Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association (Case No. 99-901), the court must determine whether a nominally private governing body for high school sports acts with state authority when it enforces its rules and thus is subject to the U.S. Constitution.

Just last week, the justices added 12 new cases to the 35 already on the docket, including two that could have implications for education.

In PGA Tour Inc. v. Martin (No. 00- 24), the question is whether professional golfer Casey Martin has a right under the Americans with Disabilities Act to use a golf cart during tour events. Mr. Martin has a painful circulatory disorder in his lower leg that prevents him from walking the golf course. The PGA Tour rules require golfers to do so. The stamina required over four rounds is an integral part of the competition, tour officials argue.

Mr. Martin won in two lower federal courts and has been using a cart on the tour. The Supreme Court agreed on Sept. 26 to hear the PGA Tour’s appeal.

The relevance for education revolves around the increasing number of students who seek special accommodations under the ADA when taking tests or seeking eligibility for athletics. For example, some students with learning disabilities have cited the ADA in seeking waivers of athletic- association age limits. Others have sought special help under the disabilities law when taking standardized tests.

“Although this is not an education case, this is one that is going to be important to watch, especially with all the high-stakes testing going on,” said Julie Underwood, the general counsel of the National School Boards Association.

National Origin

Also on Sept. 26, the court granted review in Alexander v. Sandoval (No. 99- 1908), in which it will determine under what circumstances private individuals have a right to sue under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. That title prohibits any recipient of federal financial assistance from discriminating on the basis of race, color, or national origin.

The case involves Alabama’s policy of giving driver’s license exams only in English. The policy was successfully challenged in a federal class action that argued it had a disparate impact on foreign-born drivers in violation of the civil rights law.

The case has some potential implications for education. In several cases, private parties have sued school districts and state education departments alleging “disparate impact” discrimination in violation of Title VI. And the group U.S. English filed a brief calling on the court to use the case to clarify whether so-called English-only laws and policies constitute national-origin discrimination by definition. The group, which promotes such laws, argues that they do not.

In another case involving the ADA, the court will decide whether Congress exceeded its power when it made the disabilities law applicable to the states. The case, Board of Trustees of the University of Alabama v. Garrett (No. 99-1240), is another manifestation of the court’s recent interest in federalism issues.

The court in recent years has ruled that Congress exceeded its powers under the Constitution in passing laws against gun possession near schools or making the states subject to lawsuits for age discrimination.

In the appeal stemming from ADA lawsuits filed by two Alabama state employees, the court must decide whether Congress had the power to apply key sections of the disabilities law to state and local governments. At issue are the ADA’s Title I, which generally covers employment, and Title II, which bars disability discrimination in state and local government programs.

Eavesdropping Case

The National Education Association is keeping a close watch on the case of Bartnicki v. Vopper (No. 99- 1687), even though the legal question is far afield from education.

The case stems from 1993 labor negotiations between the Wyoming Valley West school district in Pennsylvania and the local NEA affiliate. A cellular-telephone conversation between a teacher and a union negotiator that was critical of school board members was recorded by an unknown person. The tape ended up in the hands of an anti-union taxpayers’ group and then was broadcast on a local radio station.

Citing a federal law that prohibits the interception of phone conversations, the teacher and the union official sued the tax-group leader and the radio host. The Supreme Court will decide whether such third parties can be liable under the law.

A federal appeals court ruled that third parties have a First Amendment right to disseminate such information if they had no role in intercepting the phone call.

The high court will continue for several months to add new cases for argument this term. Among the issues presented by a host of education cases that are pending review are race-based assignments of public school students, rules against displaying the Confederate flag, and religion in the public schools.