It was another significant year for education at the U.S. Supreme Court. In contrast to last term, when the court addressed K-12 issues such as private school vouchers, drug testing of extracurricular participants, and the privacy of education records, two higher education cases—both dealing with affirmative action—were the most closely watched by educators.
Here are capsule summaries of the education-related cases decided by the high- court in its 2002-2003 term. (Opinions require Adobe’s Acrobat Reader.)
Consideration of race in college admissions
The court ruled 5-4 in Grutter that educational diversity is a compelling governmental interest that justified the University of Michigan law school’s consideration of race in seeking a “critical mass” of underrepresented minority students. But the court held 6-3 in Gratz that Michigan’s undergraduate system of awarding points toward admission to minority applicants violated the 14th Amendment’s guarantee of equal protection of the law.
Federal requirement for Web filters in public libraries
United States v. American Library Association (No. 02-361)
The court ruled 6-3 to uphold a federal law that requires public libraries receiving federal technology funding to install filtering software to block obscenity, child pornography, and, for minors, other material deemed harmful to them. The same law applies to federally financed Internet connections in school classrooms and libraries, but the school provision wasn’t challenged in this case.
State prohibition of same-sex sodomy
Lawrence v. Texas (02-102)
The court’s 6-3 ruling invalidating a Texas criminal law against same-sex sexual conduct, with five justices voting to overrule a 1986 decisions that backed sodomy laws, is being hailed by some educators as an important step in eliminating anti-gay bias in schools.
Liability of local governments
Cook County V. United States ex rel. Chandler (No. 01-1572)
A unanimous court ruled that local governments, such as cities and school districts, may be sued under the False Claims Act, a Civil War-era statute designed to root out fraud in federal contracts. The court held that it was clear when the law was enacted in 1863 that local governments were considered persons for the purposes of certain lawsuits.
States not immune from suits by their employees
Nevada Department of Human Resources v. Hibbs (No. 01-1368)
In a 6-3 ruling, the court said Congress was within its authority in abrogating states’ 11th Amendment immunity from lawsuits when it passed the medical-leave law. The ruling has implications for school districts in at least three states— California, Maryland, and North Carolina—where districts have been ruled to be arms of the state for 11th Amendment purposes.
Constitutionality of 20-year extension of copyright protections
Eldred v. Ashcroft (No. 01-618)
The court upheld a 1998 action by Congress to extend copyright protection by an additional 20 years in most cases. Internet publishers had objected that the law would make it more difficult to make classic works of literature and art available to students online. But textbook publishers joined others in the traditional creative community in defending the copyright extension. The court’s 7-2 decision said the extension violates neither the U.S. Constitution’s copyright clause nor the First Amendment.
State effort to extend statute of limitations on sex crimes
Stogner v. California (No. 01-1757)
In a decision with implications for cases of sexual abuse of students by educators, as well as the sex-abuse scandals of the Roman Catholic Church, the court struck down a California law that had extended the statute of limitations in certain cases where alleged victims of child sex abuse came forward years after the crimes. In a 5-4 ruling, the court said that while the state’s interest in prosecuting child sex-abuse cases was important, the law nonetheless violated the U.S. Constitution’s “ex post facto” clause, which prohibits laws with retroactive effects.