Law & Courts

Education Issues Take Spotlight in High Court

By Mark Walsh — July 12, 2011 7 min read
A detail of the West Facade of the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington.

The U.S. Supreme Court term that ended in June produced rulings significant for the rights of children, school employees, and those who would challenge government aid to religious schools.

The decisions were among roughly 10 during the 2010-11 term that involved issues of interest to school administrators, parents, or education advocates.

In particular, two cases that dealt with the relationship between the state and children resulted in decisions granting greater protections for young people in distinct areas of constitutional law.

In one case, which struck down California’s attempt to bar the sale of violent video games to minors, the high court refused to carve out an exception to First Amendment protections for children and teenagers over expression that was unquestionably legal for adults to receive.

“No doubt a state possesses legitimate power to protect children from harm, but that does not include a free-floating power to restrict the ideas to which children may be exposed,” Justice Antonin Scalia wrote for five justices on June 27 in the 7-2 ruling in Brown v. Entertainment Merchants Association (Case No. 08-1448).

In the other case, the court viewed minors as needing greater protection than adults from the coercive nature of interactions with the police.

“A reasonable child subjected to police questioning will sometimes feel pressured to submit when a reasonable adult would feel free to go,” Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote on June 16 in the 5-4 decision in J.D.B. v. North Carolina (No. 09-11121), which held that age was an appropriate factor in determining whether a person was in custody and thus entitled to the familiar warnings against self-incrimination under the landmark 1966 case of Miranda v. Arizona.

Highlights: The 2010-11 Term

The U.S. Supreme Court’s recently concluded term generated significant rulings for the rights of children, school board members, school employees, and litigants seeking to challenge aid to private schools. With some exceptions, the justices reached a high degree of consensus in the cases of interest to educators.

J.D.B. v. North Carolina
The justices ruled 5-4 that age was a relevant factor in determining whether a juvenile criminal suspect merits a Miranda warning about the rights against self-incrimination. The decision came in a case in which a youth had been interrogated at his school by police and school administrators and confessed to committing neighborhood thefts without the benefit of a Miranda warning.

Camreta v. Greene
The court concluded after hearing arguments it could not decide whether police and child-abuse investigators required a warrant or parental consent to question students in school. But the justices set aside a lower-court ruling requiring a warrant in such circumstances, and they made it easier for government officials to appeal an unfavorable constitutional ruling even when they have won a lower-court decision on immunity grounds. The specific case, involving a girl whom authorities believe was being sexually abused at home, was moot, the court held.

Brown v. Entertainment Merchants Association
The justices ruled 7-2 to strike down a California law that barred the sale of violent video games to anyone under age 18. The court said video games were deserving of the full protection of the First Amendment, and it noted that violent themes pervade children’s literature, from fairy tales to high school reading lists. The government has no “free-floating power to restrict the ideas to which children may be exposed,” the court said.

Arizona Christian School Tuition Organization v. Winn
The court ruled 5-4 that taxpayers who opposed a state tax credit benefiting private religious schools lacked standing to challenge the program. Any financial benefit to religion under the program was not the result of government spending choices, the court held in a ruling that removed the last legal cloud over a 13-year-old Arizona program that provides a dollar-for-dollar tax credit for donations to “school tuition organizations.”

Borough of Duryea v. Guarnieri
The court ruled 8-1 that a government employee alleging retaliation for a workplace grievance cannot win a claim under the First Amendment’s “petition” clause unless the employee’s grievance is about a matter of public concern.

Nevada Commission on Ethics v. Carrigan
The court ruled unanimously that the act of voting by a lawmaker is not protected speech under the First Amendment. The decision upheld a Nevada ethics law for local officials, including school board members, that requires them to abstain from voting on or participating in debates on matters implicating their own financial interests or those of their close associates.

Los Angeles County v. Humphries
The court ruled 8-0 that a key precedent on municipal liability for civil rights violations applies even when a plaintiff is seeking only an injunction or a declaratory judgment, in contrast to monetary damages. The decision, which has implications for civil rights cases against school districts, came in the case of a California teacher and her husband who were wrongfully accused of child abuse but could not remove their names from a state child-abuse registry.

Staub v. Proctor Hospital
In a case watched by school board attorneys, the court made it easier for workers to win discrimination suits based on the “cat’s paw” theory of liability. That is when a biased subordinate dupes a decisionmaker into taking an adverse job action against the subordinate’s target. The decision was 8-0.

Thompson v. North American Stainless LP
In a case with implications for school districts, the court ruled 8-0 that an employee who was fired after his fiancée had filed a sex-discrimination complaint had a valid claim for retaliation under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Bruesewitz v. Wyeth
In a case that of interest to the autism community, the court ruled 6-2 that the National Childhood Vaccine Injury Act of 1986 preempted all design-defect claims brought by plaintiffs seeking compensation for injuries caused by the side effects of vaccines.

School Boards Weigh In

Ruling on a matter of significance for school choice, the justices held 5-4 in April that taxpayers who objected to an Arizona tax credit that benefits religious schools lacked standing to challenge it as an unconstitutional government establishment of religion.

Any benefit to religion was not the result of government spending choices, the court said, and thus taxpayers were not legally harmed. While the decision in Arizona Christian School Tuition Organization v. Winn (No. 09-987) was not, strictly speaking, on the merits of such tax credits, it was viewed as clearing the way for other states to experiment in that policy area. And the decision makes it more difficult for other laws or aid programs benefiting religious schools to be challenged in federal courts.

“I think this is a very important case, given that it overturned four decades of precedent” on challenging government aid to religion, said Francisco Negron, the general counsel of the National School Boards Association, in Alexandria, Va., which filed a friend-of-the-court brief on the side of the challengers. “And this Arizona tax credit is not an outlier. There’s a danger that this program will be expanded to other states.”

The NSBA has become the most prolific education group in filing such briefs with the court, raising the concerns of school districts in various education and employment cases.

The organization’s brief was cited in a June 20 decision in which the court made it harder for public employees to gain First Amendment protections for their workplace grievances.

In Borough of Duryea v. Guarnieri (No. 09-1476), Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote for a 5-4 court that a government employer’s alleged retaliation against an employee did not give rise to a suit under the First Amendment’s petition clause unless the employee’s complaint was about a matter of public concern.

Justice Kennedy borrowed from the NSBA’s brief the idea that not every grievance from public employees on such routine workplace matters as pay, promotions, discipline, and vacations should become a federal case.

“We were gratified with that,” Mr. Negron said. “We said, ‘You don’t want to constitutionalize every employment grievance.’ ”

Vulnerable at School?

The court’s two decisions affecting the rights of children were among the most far-reaching of the term.

Some analysts see the J.D.B. v. North Carolina ruling as the latest in a trend in which the high court has viewed children and adolescents as more vulnerable, less fully developed, and thus in need of greater protection in the criminal-justice realm.

David S. Tanenhaus, a professor of history and law at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, noted that Justice Sotomayor, in her majority opinion in J.D.B., cited the court’s relatively recent decisions prohibiting the death penalty for juvenile offenders and barring life in prison without possibility of parole for nonhomicide crimes.

“Sotomayor’s discussion of the common-sense conclusions [leading to the outcome in J.D.B.] comes from the discussion of adolescent development in those cases,” said Mr. Tanenhaus, the author of a forthcoming book, The Constitutional Rights of Children, about juvenile justice.

In J.D.B., a 13-year-old middle school student was pulled from class and interrogated in a school conference room with four adults present: two police officers and two school administrators. The youth was not given a Miranda warning of his right to remain silent or to consult a lawyer, and the North Carolina courts refused during delinquency proceedings to exclude his confession to a series of neighborhood thefts.

The Supreme Court, with Justices Anthony M. Kennedy, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen G. Breyer, and Elena Kagan joining Justice Sotomayor, reversed J.D.B.’s delinquency finding and sent the case back to the North Carolina state courts to determine whether the boy was in custody at the time of the interrogation, this time taking his age into account.

In a dissent joined by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justices Scalia and Clarence Thomas, Justice Alito suggested that taking the school setting into account for such interrogations, instead of the suspect’s age, would ensure that minors are not coerced into confessing.

Marsha Levick, the deputy director and legal counsel of the Juvenile Law Center in Philadelphia, said there were lessons for school administrators in the decision.

“To the extent that school administrators are going to cooperate with or invite the police into the school setting, I do think that they need to recognize that students have special rights with regard to custodial settings,” Ms. Levick said.

Scalia Deflects Critiques

In the Brown decision on California’s video-games law, it was the dissenters who suggested that the vulnerability of youths would help the state justify seeking to protect them from violent entertainment.

“Today, 5.3 million grade-school-age children of working parents are routinely home alone,” Justice Breyer said in his dissent. “Thus, it has, if anything, become more important to supplement parents’ authority to guide their children’s development.”

The U.S. Supreme Court struck down California’s law barring sales of violent games such as Grand Theft Auto IV to minors.

Justice Breyer was more willing than other justices to put faith in studies relied on by California lawmakers that suggest a correlation between playing violent video games and aggressive behavior.

In a separate dissent, Justice Thomas explored at length the history of parental control of the upbringing of their children from the earliest days of the Republic. He noted with approval that 19th-century schoolbooks instructed children to be dutiful and obedient to their parents. And the framers of the Constitution “could not possibly have understood the freedom of speech to include an unqualified right to speak to minors,” he said.

Justice Alito, in a concurrence joined by Chief Justice Roberts, said he would have ruled only that the California law did not provide fair notice of what was constitutional, but he would not have gone as far as the majority in foreclosing government regulation of video games. Justice Alito also said he suspected that “spending hour upon hour controlling the actions of a character who guns down scores of innocent victims” in a video game might be different from reading a description of violence in literature.

In his majority opinion, Justice Scalia responded to all three critiques. To Justice Alito, he said that reading “Dante is unquestionably more cultured and intellectually edifying than playing [the video game] ‘Mortal Kombat.’ But these cultural and intellectual differences are not constitutional ones.”

Justice Scalia criticized Justice Breyer’s reliance on social science, noting that one prominent researcher’s work found similar feelings of aggression after children watched Bugs Bunny or Road Runner cartoons. And to his fellow “originalist” Justice Thomas, Justice Scalia said no case law supported the view that those under age 18 have no constitutional right to speak or be spoken to without their parents’ consent.

Justice Scalia also stressed that violent themes pervade literature and entertainment encountered by children, from Grimm’s Fairy Tales to high school reading lists that include Homer’s Odyssey and William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, which the justice noted “recounts how a schoolboy called Piggy is savagely murdered by other children while marooned on an island.”

“In truth, the California act is the latest is a long series of failed attempts to censor violent entertainment for minors,” Justice Scalia said.

A version of this article appeared in the July 13, 2011 edition of Education Week as Handful of High Court Rulings Touched on Education Issues


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