Some Cases to Watch in New Supreme Court Term

By Mark Walsh — September 30, 2009 4 min read
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Last week I wrote an item about several hot-button education appeals pending review in the U.S. Supreme Court. But I noted that none of those cases, on the Pledge of Allegiance, Confederate T-shirts, book challenges, and religious messages at graduation, had any guarantee of being granted full review by the justices.

For the moment, there are no cases directly involving K-12 schools on the docket for the new Supreme Court term that officially opens on Oct. 5. Nevertheless, there are several granted cases that hold potential implications in education.

Religious Symbols in the Public Square
Salazar v. Buono (Case No. 08-472) is one of those establishment clause cases, like the Ten Commandments cases and the Summum case from last term, that bear watching even though the setting is not a school.

At issue in the case is a cross in the Mojave National Preserve in California that is the latest version of one erected as a monument to Americans who died in World War I. The case is complicated by issues of standing and a complex series of actions by Congress to rescue the cross from being removed as an unconstitutional government establishment of religion. The Washington Post on Tuesday had this excellent on-site story about the case.

One reason the education community should keep an eye on the case is that, like all other establishment clause cases in the Supreme Court, this one has attracted the participation of groups on the left and right that battle over all forms of religion in the public schools. Groups supporting the desert cross argue in briefs why the court can distinguish its long line of cases about religious displays or prayers in public schools from the case before them. Groups siding with the challenge to the cross argue in favor of broad rules of “standing” permitting challenges to religious practices in schools and on government property.

The case is set for argument on Oct. 7.

Life Sentences for Juvenile Offenders
In two cases from Florida, the court has agreed to decide whether sentencing juvenile offenders to life without parole for crimes other than homicide violates the Eighth Amendments prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.

The cases involve an offender who was 13 when he was sentenced to life for the robbery and rape of an elderly woman, and an offender who committed armed robbery at age 16 and was sentence to life without parole when he violated his probation at age 17. The cases are Sullivan v. Florida (No. 08-7621) and Graham v. Florida (No. 08-7412).

The cases will be heard four years after the Supreme Court, in Roper v. Simmons, ruled that the death penalty for crimes committed by offenders under age 18 violated the Eighth Amendment, in part because of the diminished moral culpability of juveniles.

A group of prominent educators, including Geoffrey Canada of the Harlem Children’s Zone, has filed a friend-of-the-court brief on the side of the juvenile offenders, which argues that “sentencing juveniles to life without parole for non-homicide crimes committed during their youth wrongly ignores children’s inherent potential to mature and rehabilitate, and cruelly deprives adolescents of any opportunity to utilize those qualities to one day become contributing members of society.”

The cases are set for argument on Nov. 9.

Attorneys’ Fees in Civil-Rights Cases
In a case stemming from litigation over Georgia’s foster-care system, the justices will decide whether lawyers who press such institutional-reform cases may be awarded extra money on top of normal attorneys’ fees when their efforts bring about major changes.

At issue in Perdue v. Kenny A. (No. 08-970) is a federal district judge’s decision to award an enhancement of $4.5 million on top of a $6 million attorneys’ fee award to lawyers who brought a class action over the state’s system for handling children in foster care. The judge concluded the enhanced fees were justified because the lawyers provided exceptional representation and forced significant changes in the system through a consent decree.

The National School Boards Association has filed a friend-of-the-court brief on the side of the state of Georgia. The NSBA notes that school systems are often at the center of institutional-reform litigation, and it argues that the enhanced attorneys’ fee structure authorized by the lower courts “will result in scarce resources being redirected toward attorneys and litigation, and away from improving student achievement.”

Civil rights groups, meanwhile, have filed briefs arguing that Congress intended laws that authorize attorneys’ fees for prevailing parties to permit judges to order enhanced awards in exceptional circumstances.

The case will be argued Oct. 14.

Student Loans
In an important case for higher education and the student loan business, the justices will hear the appeal of a lender whose college loans totaling $13,250 to an Arizona man were discharged by a bankruptcy court. Federal law says student loans cannot be written off in bankruptcy except in cases of “undue hardship” proven in an adversary proceeding, and there was no such proceeding in the Arizona man’s case.

A federal appeals court ruled last year that the lender had received notice of the debtor’s plan to discharge some of his student loan obligations in a Chapter 13 bankruptcy proceeding and did not object to it.

The appeal is United Student Aid Funds v. Espinosa (No. 08-1134). The case has been set for argument on Dec. 1.

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