Education and the Supreme Court: The 2004-05 Term

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Justice Sandra Day O’Connor’s pending retirement perhaps overshadows any single case in the U.S. Supreme Court term that ended June 27. Her role as the often-decisive fifth vote was underscored by the only case that dealt directly with education, a Title IX ruling for which Justice O’Connor wrote the opinion for a slim majority. Three other cases were of particular interest to educators during the 2004-05 term.

Jackson v. Birmingham Board of Education (Case No. 02-1672)

The high court ruled 5-4 that teachers and coaches who suffer reprisals for complaining about illegal sex discrimination against their students may sue under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, the law that prohibits such discrimination in federally financed education programs. Writing for the majority, Justice O’Connor said that if retaliation against whistleblowers such as the Birmingham, Ala., girls’ basketball coach who had brought the case were not prohibited under the law, “Title IX’s enforcement scheme would unravel.”

McCreary County v. American Civil Liberties Union of Kentucky (No. 03-1693)
Van Orden v. Perry (No. 03-1500)

In cases watched by educators facing similar controversies, the court ruled 5-4 in McCreary County against the display of the Ten Commandments in two Kentucky county courthouses. The majority said the recent-vintage displays were motivated primarily by a desire to advance religion and thus violated the First Amendment’s prohibition against a government establishment of religion. In Van Orden, a different 5-4 court allowed the display of a stone tablet of the commandments that has been on the grounds of the Texas state Capitol since 1961.

Smith v. City of Jackson, Miss. (No. 03-1160)

In a 5-3 ruling, the court held that workers covered by the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967—those 40 or older—do not need to prove that their employers deliberately intended to harm them to win a claim. The court ultimately ruled against a group of police officers who challenged a pay plan that gave larger raises to younger officers, but it concluded that the ADEA authorized such disparate-impact suits. Some school law experts said the ruling could be a double-edged sword for districts, exposing them to greater risk from disparate-impact claims filed by older workers, but allowing more leeway in giving newer teachers larger raises to combat attrition.

Roper v. Simmons (No. 03-633)

The court ruled 5-4 to invalidate the death penalty for those who were under 18 at the time of their crimes. Writing for the majority, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy said that both a national consensus and research on the adolescent brain make it “misguided to equate the failings of a minor with those of an adult.” The decision effectively commuted the death sentences of 72 convicts across the country.

SOURCE: Education Week

Vol. 24, Issue 42, Page 29

Published in Print: July 13, 2005, as Education and the Supreme Court: The 2004-05 Term
Web Resources
  • The case of Jackson v. Birmingham Board of Education dealt with sexual discrimination under Title IX. Requires Adobe Acrobat Reader
  • The Supreme Court ruling in the case of Smith v. City of Jackson, Miss. addressed the issue of age discrimination and indirectly provided school districts leeway in offering new teachers larger raises to combat attrition. Requires Adobe Acrobat Reader
  • The case of Roper v. Simmons invalidated the the death penalty for those who were under 18 at the time of their crimes. Requires Adobe Acrobat Reader
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