Equity & Diversity

K-12 and the U.S. Supreme Court: Highlights of the 2017-18 Term

By Mark Walsh — June 29, 2018 4 min read
The U.S. Supreme Court meets for the last day of opinions on June 27.

After a major term for K-12 education the year before, the U.S. Supreme Court—with one blockbuster exception and a major retirement—had a more measured term in 2017-18.

The standout case for educators was Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees Council 31, which stripped teacher and other public employee unions of the right to collect agency fees from nonmembers, overturning a decades-old high court precedent. The aftershocks are expected to continue.

That ruling was issued the last day of the term, June 27, the same day that Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, a highly influential moderate-conservative at the center of the U.S. Supreme Court for three decades, announced his retirement. In his time on the court, Kennedy wrote major opinions on race, religion, and other areas of public education.

Here’s a summary of opinions on issues of interest to K-12 educators this term, including union rights, a variety of First Amendment issues, and cases with implications for school funding and immigration.

Teachers’ Unions

Plaintiff Mark Janus, center, sits with Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner, left, and Liberty Justice Center founder and chairman John Tillman inside the U.S. Supreme Court as the decision in Janus v. AFSCME is delivered. The Illinois-based Liberty Justice Center has been representing Janus in his years-long challenge to union fees.

Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees Council 31: In a long-anticipated decision, the court ruled 5-4 to overrule a 41-year-old precedent that allowed the teachers’ unions and other public-employee labor organizations to collect fees for collective bargaining from workers who decline to join the union. The justices also ruled that workers must affirmatively opt into the union before fees can be taken out of their paychecks.

State Taxation

Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, left, reads the court’s 5-4 majority decision in South Dakota v. Wayfair, Inc. Kennedy, who announced his retirement on the last day of the term, is joined by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., center, and Justice Clarence Thomas.

South Dakota v. Wayfair Inc.: In a decision that is likely to boost the coffers of states as well as school districts, the court allowed states to require out-of-state retailers to collect sales taxes on Internet purchases. The justices overruled two precedents, from 1967 and 1992, that had required sellers to have a physical presence in the state before facing tax collection. States, cities, and school districts were missing out on as much as $34 billion per year.

First Amendment

Plaintiff Fane Lozman watches arguments before the court in Lozman v. City of Riviera Beach, Fla. Lozman, center, is a resident of the City of Riviera Beach, and a vocal critic of the city’s plan to utilize eminent domain to redevelop the Riviera Beach Marina.

Lozman v. City of Riviera Beach, Fla.: Educators were watching the case of a persistent gadfly speaker at city council meetings who was arrested when the presiding council member sought to cut him off during a public comment period and Lozman refused to leave. The high court reinstated the man’s civil lawsuit on narrow grounds, and did not decide whether the existence of probable cause on the part of the police in such situations automatically bars a civil suit for First Amendment retaliation. But the court did stress that the right to petition the government ranks “high in the hierarchy of First Amendment values.”

Masterpiece Cakeshop Ltd. v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission: In a case that was watched by many in education, including teachers’ unions and religious colleges, the court ruled that the civil rights panel had violated the religious rights of a baker who had refused to create a wedding cake for a same-sex couple. The decision, however, sidestepped the larger questions about conflicts between religious rights and government protections against discrimination based on sexual orientation.

Minnesota Voters Alliance v. Mansky: The justices struck down Minnesota’s ban on political apparel at polling places in a First Amendment case with implications for free speech restrictions in public schools. The court suggested that states could restrict expressive apparel at polling places, which are less “mundane” forums than schools. But Minnesota’s restrictions on issue-oriented messages were not reasonable, the court said.

Immigration

Trump v. Hawaii: Teachers’ unions, colleges and universities, and many higher education groups had weighed in on this case, in which the court ruled 5-4 to uphold President Donald Trump’s restrictions on travel to the United States from five predominantly Muslim countries. The advocacy groups had joined briefs arguing that the policy represents discrimination based on religion and hampers international study. But the court held that the entry ban was a valid exercise of the president’s broad authority to regulate immigration and that the government set forth a sufficient national security justification to survive the claim that the president’s anti-Muslim statements led the policy to violate the First Amendment’s prohibition against government establishment of religion.

Sports Gambling

Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., second from left, reads the court’s 6-3 majority vote in Murphy v. National Collegiate College Athletic Association.

Murphy v. National Collegiate Athletic Association: The court struck down a federal law aimed at stopping the spread of sports betting, in a case that was watched in higher education and among advocates who fear the effects of gambling on the nation’s youth. The court said the 1992 Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act, which barred the states from authorizing sports wagering, violates a principle outlined by the high court against “commandeering,” or directing the states to pass a particular law.

A version of this article appeared in the July 18, 2018 edition of Education Week as U.S. Supreme Court and Schools: 2017-18

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