Supreme Court Declines to Hear NCLB Challenge

By Mark Walsh — February 22, 2011 3 min read
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In a busy day for education-related cases at the U.S. Supreme Court, the justices on Monday declined to hear the state of Connecticut’s challenge to the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

Meanwhile, in a case being watched closely in the autism community, the court ruled 6-2 that a federal law preempts all design defect claims brought by plaintiffs seeking compensation for injuries caused by a vaccine’s side effects.

And the court ruled 7-2 that a railroad may challenge sales and use taxes charged by the state of Alabama on diesel fuel used by railroads but not charged on motor and water carriers. The tax program was defended by the state in the Supreme Court as critical to the funding of its education system.

In the NCLB case, the justices declined without comment to take up the state’s lawsuit alleging that the federal government could not require states to spend their own money on the federal law’s requirements because of the statute’s language barring unfunded mandates. The U.S. Department of Education had refused to grant Connecticut a waiver of annual testing requirements. The state claimed it had spent at least $41.6 million of its own money from 2002 to 2008 to comply with the law.

A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit decided last year that the central claim of the case was premature because the Education Department had not taken enforcement action against the state.

“The 2nd Circuit’s decision defies the law and common sense,” then Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal argued in the Supreme Court appeal filed in October. Blumenthal, a Democrat, was elected to the U.S. Senate last fall.

The Obama administration defended the law’s requirements before the Supreme Court and said Connecticut never raised its funding claims when it sought waivers from the testing requirements. The case was State of Connecticut v. Duncan (No. 10-489).

In June 2010, the high court declined to hear an appeal stemming from the National Education Association’s similar challenge to NCLB.

In the vaccine case, Bruesewitz v. Wyeth Inc. (No. 09-152), the court had to decide whether a provision of the National Childhood Vaccine Injury Act of 1986 precludes liability for certain claims against vaccine manufacturers even if the vaccine’s side effects were avoidable.

The case was brought on behalf of Hannah Bruesewitz, now 19, who suffered seizures and has had developmental disabilities since having a bad reaction to a diphtheria-tetanus-pertussis (DTP) vaccine known as Tri-Immunol as an infant in 1992.

Lawyers for the family contend that the vaccine, developed in the 1940s, had long been superseded by a more modern design, but that the drug manufacturer declined to change its DTP vaccine’s design because it viewed the economic costs as outweighing any potential gain in market share. Wyeth, now part of Pfizer Inc., withdrew Tri-Immunol from the market in 1998.

Writing for the court today, Justice Antonin Scalia said Congress set up a special vaccine court to compensate injured children without driving vaccine makers from the market and sparing them the costs of defending parents’ lawsuits.

“Vaccine manufacturers fund from their sales an informal, efficient compensation program for vaccine injuries,” Scalia said. “In exchange they avoid costly tort litigation and the occasional disproportionate jury verdict.”

Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote a dissent joined by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. She said the majority’s decision “leaves a regulatory vacuum in which no one ensures that vaccine manufacturers adequately take account of scientific and technological advancements when designing or distributing their products.”

In the railroad tax case, CSX Transportation Inc. v. Alabama Department of Revenue (No. 09-520), Alabama education groups filed a friend-of-the-court brief on the side of the state, arguing that the tax on railroads is critical because it helps finance the state’s Education Trust Fund.

In the majority opinion, Justice Elena Kagan said CSX could challenge Alabama’s discriminatory tax treatment under a 1976 federal law, the Railroad Revitalization and Regulatory Reform Act. The court did not address whether the railroad should prevail in the challenge. It sent the case back to lower courts for further proceedings.

Justices Ginsburg and Clarence Thomas dissented.

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