Law & Courts

A Full U.S. Appeals Court Lets Federal Right-to-Education Case Go Forward

By Mark Walsh — December 11, 2020 3 min read
Image shows a courtroom and gavel.

Over a vigorous dissent, a full federal appeals court has narrowly voted against rehearing a case in which an appellate panel revived a lawsuit raising a novel claim to a federal right to education for poor children in two Mississippi school districts.

The suit alleges that Mississippi’s lack of a “uniform” education system under its 1987 state constitution violates the post-Civil War federal law that readmitted the state to the Union based on an 1868 state constitution that did include such a guarantee.

In an April decision, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit, in New Orleans, unanimously reinstated the claims brought by a group of African-American women on behalf of their children attending substandard schools in Jackson and Yazoo City, Miss.

The appellate panel revived the part of the suit based on the federal Readmission Act, but it said it could not revive a claim that the uniform education clause of the 1868 Mississippi constitution was still legally binding.

Mississippi asked the full 5th Circuit court to toss out the panel’s ruling and reconsider the case based on arguments that there is no private right to sue to enforce the Readmission Act and that the plaintiffs are seeking to have a federal court order state officials to “conform their conduct to state law as it was in 1868,” as they put it in court papers.

‘This Strange Case …’

On Dec. 7, in a short opinion in Williams v. Reeves, the full 5th Circuit court announced that it had voted 9-8 against rehearing.

Judge Edith H. Jones wrote a dissent joined by the other seven who would have voted to rehear the case.

“This strange case seeks a declaratory judgment that Mississippi’s 1868 Constitution, which satisfied the terms of the post-Civil War Readmission Act of Congress, granted more educational rights to African-American children than an amendment to the state’s Constitution in 1987,” Jones said.

Jones said the result sought by the plaintiffs would essentially “tell Mississippi what its state Constitution meant then and means now and would pave the way for federal court orders to effect a major restructuring of state school funding. Federal courts, however, have no business interpreting and enforcing state law against state government.”

Jones said that the federal district court, taking up the revived lawsuit, will have to balance the meaning of “a uniform system” of public schools in Mississippi’s 1868 constitution against “the establishment, maintenance and support” of public schools described in the state’s 1987 constitutional amendment.

“Only after finding that the provisions conflict and that the newer provision is less protective of plaintiffs’ children than the 1868 provision could a court conclude that the ‘school rights and privileges’ referenced in the federal Readmission Act have not been ‘secured by the constitution’ of Mississippi,” Jones said.

The analysis required under the suit is really a task for Mississippi’s state courts, not any federal court, Jones said. And the state has sovereign immunity from suits of this sort, she said.

“The plaintiffs’ case is doomed irrespective of constitutional sovereign immunity because [the plaintiffs] are not empowered to enforce the Readmission Act,” Jones said. “We may not subject the state to further litigation and travail.”

But the vote against rehearing will subject the state to “further litigation and travail,” although it seems likely the state will appeal the panel decision to the U.S. Supreme Court, which may be less receptive to the plaintiffs’ theory of the case.

The Mississippi suit is advancing in a year when there have been several significant developments in cases invoking various theories of a federal right to education.

In April, in a decision that briefly jolted school law circles, a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit, in Cincinnati, issued an opinion recognizing a federal constitutional right of access to education, in the form of a right to literacy. But that decision was later vacated after the underlying lawsuit challenging poor conditions in the Detroit school system was settled.

In October, a federal district judge in Rhode Island held that the U.S. Constitution does not encompass a right to civics education, though the judge commended the thrust of the lawsuit brought by high school students in the state as “a cry for help from a generation of young people who are destined to inherit a country which we—the generation currently in charge—are not stewarding well.”

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