Education and the Supreme Court: The 1998-99 Term

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The U.S. Supreme Court decided two major cases involving school districts during the term that ended last month. It also issued rulings in several other areas with implications for public education, including cases involving disabilities, gangs, and the application of federal civil rights laws to membership organizations such as the National Collegiate Athletic Association.

The court heard arguments during the term in an important voting-rights case involving a Louisiana school district, but the justices ordered the case of Reno v. Bossier Parish School Board (Case No. 98-405) to be reargued during its next term. The court also made news in education circles by declining to review a ruling of the Wisconsin Supreme Court that upheld the expansion of the Milwaukee voucher program to include religious schools. The high court's refusal to review the case was not a ruling on the merits of religious school vouchers, and most legal experts expect the justices to take up the issue formally within the next few years.

Here are capsule summaries of the education-related cases the justices did decide. (Clicking on the case titles will take you to FindLaw where you can view the full text of the decisions).

IDEA: Nursing Services for Disabled Students
Cedar Rapids Community School District v. Garret F. (No. 96-1793): In a 7-2 ruling, the court said the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act requires districts to provide one-on-one nursing services to students with serious disabilities who need such care in order to attend school. The court said such care was a required "related service" under the law and not an excluded "medical service."
TITLE IX: Peer Sexual Harassment
Davis v. Monroe County Board of Education (No. 97-843): Districts may be sued under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 in cases alleging student-on-student sexual harassment. In a 5-4 ruling, the court held that districts may be found liable under Title IX only when they are "deliberately indifferent" to information about such harassment and when the harassment is so "severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive" that it bars the victim's access to an educational program or benefit.
TITLE IX: Applicability to NCAA
National Collegiate Athletic Association v. Smith (No. 98-84): The court unanimously held that the National Collegiate Athletic Association cannot be held subject to lawsuits under Title IX merely because it receives dues payments from educational institutions that are recipients of federal funds. But the high court did not preclude the possibility that the association could be held subject to Title IX based on other legal arguments. A federal district court has since ruled that the NCAA is subject to Title IX because one of its affiliated organizations is a direct recipient of federal money.
CRIMINAL LAW: Gang Loitering
City of Chicago v. Morales (No. 97-1121): The court struck down a Chicago ordinance that prohibited loitering by suspected street-gang members and allowed police to arrest anyone who refused an order to disperse. In a 6-3 ruling, the court said the law was unconstitutionally vague because it covered a substantial amount of innocent conduct. Some school districts enforce loitering prohibitions and other rules targeted at gang activity, and some courts have said that such rules have greater leeway than criminal statutes.
CENSUS: Use of Statistical Sampling
Department of Commerce v. U.S. House of Representatives (No. 98-404): In a 5-4 ruling, the court said that statistical sampling may not be used to count the U.S. population for the purpose of apportioning House seats. However, the court noted that a 1976 federal law permits the Census Bureau to use sampling for other purposes, including the allocation of federal funds. Census figures are used, for example, to allocate Title I education aid to the states.
Definition of Who Is Disabled
Sutton v. United Air Lines Inc. (No. 97-1943): In 7-2 rulings in this and two related cases, the court held that employees with physical impairments who can function normally by wearing corrective lenses or by taking medication are not considered disabled under the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. The court held that Congress did not intend to include the vast number of people with remediable conditions such as poor eyesight under the disabilities law.
STATES' RIGHTS: State Immunity From Lawsuits
Alden v. Maine (No. 98-436): The justices, by a 5-4 majority, said states are immune from lawsuits in state court over the federal Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938. The ruling, which was accompanied by 5-4 rulings in two related cases involving state sovereign immunity, placed new limits on the ability of Congress to pass legislation that is binding on the states. Whether the same sovereign immunity applies to subdivisions of a state, such as a school district, might depend on the federal law at issue and the basis on which Congress adopted it, legal experts believe.

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