In the same week it heard arguments in a potentially landmark case about the extent of the constitutional right to bear arms, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to take up an appeal stemming from a gang-related drive-by shooting at a Seattle high school that left one student dead.
The legal question in the Seattle case is not one of school law. But the case will present the justices with a stark reminder that public schools are often caught up in urban violence.
In Waddington v. Sarausad (Case No. 07-772), Seattle street gang member Cesar Sarausad is challenging his conviction as an accomplice in a March 23, 1994, drive-by shooting at Ballard High School that killed 16-year-old Melissa Fernandes.
According to court papers, Mr. Sarausad was the driver of a car full of members of the 23rd Street Diablos, who had been chased away from Ballard High a few days earlier by a rival street gang. Another gang member fired into a group of students. Ms. Fernandes, who had been waiting to get picked up by her mother, was struck in the head.
The shooter was convicted of first-degree murder, and the appeal does not concern him. Mr. Sarausad, then 19, who had sped away and later removed a bullet shell from his car,was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to 27 years.
A Brief From Chicago
At issue before the Supreme Court is a ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, in San Francisco, that the jury instructions in the case were faulty because they did not make clear that “an accomplice must have knowledge of the actual crime the principal intends to commit.”
The state of Washington appealed the ruling to the high court, which granted review on March 17. The case will be heard during the court’s next term.
A day later, the justices heard arguments in District of Columbia v. Heller (No. 07-290), which examines the constitutionality of a broad prohibition against handgun ownership in the nation’s capital.
Interest in the case was extraordinary because it presented the court with its first opportunity to interpret the Second Amendment in some 70 years.
“A handgun is concealable and movable. It can be taken into schools, into buses, into government office buildings, and that is the particular danger it poses in densely populated urban areas,” Walter Dellinger, the lawyer representing the District of Columbia, told the justices.
To be sure, the oral arguments did not dwell on the issue of guns and schools. But Justice John Paul Stevens asked the lawyer challenging the city’s gun limits whether a state university should be able to bar students from having guns in dormitories.
“It’s something that might be doable, but that’s … so far from what we have here,” said the lawyer, Alan Gura. “We have here a ban on all guns, for all people, in all homes, at all times in the nation’s capital. That questionably is too broad and too sweeping under any level of review.”
The court received friend-of-the-court briefs from dozens of groups on both sides of the issue. One of the few school-related groups to chime in was the Chicago board of education, which joined a brief filed by the city of Chicago that urged the justices to uphold Washington’s gun prohibition.
The 415,000-student Chicago school district pointed out to the court that in the past school year, 29 of its students were killed in firearms-related violence. (“Chicago Launches Anti-Violence Effort,” Sept. 26, 2007.)
“During the first semester of the current school year, eight more students have been murdered,” the brief says. “Against this backdrop, [Chicago and its school system] consider it imperative that … the states be free to regulate firearms as they deem appropriate to the particular conditions in their communities.”
A version of this article appeared in the March 26, 2008 edition of Education Week