Education Funding

Education-Related Cases Part of High Court Workload

By Mark Walsh — October 14, 2013 5 min read
The U.S. Supreme Court’s 2013-2014 term opened last week, despite the federal government shutdown. The justices rejected appeals in cases concerning drug-detection dogs in schools and student religious speech, among others involving education. They also heard arguments in campaign-finance and age-discrimination cases being watched by educators.

The government shutdown did nothing to keep the U.S. Supreme Court from opening its term on schedule last week, with the justices turning away several significant education appeals and hearing arguments in two cases being watched by school groups.

The high court and lower federal courts are operating on the judicial branch’s pool of money collected from court fees. The courts were expecting to be able to continue through at least mid-October, which means the Supreme Court should be able to hear arguments this week in a major case about Michigan’s state constitutional prohibition on the consideration of race in education.

On Oct. 7, the justices dealt with the many appeals that had piled up over the summer, turning away, among others, cases involving police drug-detection dog “sniffs” of student backpacks, the participation of school resource officers in questioning of students, and student religious speech at a graduation ceremony. All were declined without comment.

Drug-Sniffing Dogs

In the dog-sniff case, the justices declined to hear the appeal of a Missouri family who challenged a 2010 operation by sheriff’s deputies at Central High School in Springfield, Mo. Students in some classrooms were required to exit the room but leave behind their purses and backpacks. The deputies then ushered in a drug-sniffing dog.

A student identified as C.M. and his parents challenged the procedure as an illegal seizure under the Fourth Amendment. A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit, in St. Louis, earlier this year unanimously upheld the action of the school district and the sheriff’s department, including because there was substantial evidence of a drug problem in the district’s schools.

In the appeal to the Supreme Court in Burlison v. Springfield Public Schools (Case No. 12-1423), C.M. and his parents said the dog-sniffing procedure subjects students to a “police state environment instead of a nurturing place conducive to learning.”

Questioning Students

In another case involving law-enforcement tactics in the schools, the court declined to take up an appeal involving whether a student is in police custody when he is questioned by a school administrator in the presence of a school resource officer about misconduct.

The Kentucky Supreme Court ruled 4-3 in April that a high school student’s statements to an assistant principal about giving prescription pills to other students had to be suppressed in a criminal proceeding because the student had not been given a Miranda warning. In addition to facing school discipline, the student was charged with felony possession and dispensing of a controlled substance and was sentenced to 45 days in jail. The Kentucky high court’s decision overturned that conviction.

The state’s appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court in Kentucky v. N.C. (No. 13-123) was joined by the National School Boards Association and its Kentucky affiliate. They argued that the decision threatens school safety and discipline because there are many times when the questioning of students by an administrator with the involvement of a school resource officer could end up as either a matter of school discipline or criminal law.

And in the area of religion in the public schools, the justices declined to hear an appeal on behalf of a New York state 8th grader who was barred by school administrators from concluding her graduation speech at a public middle school with a Christian blessing.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit, in New York City, ruled in January that because the Taconic Hills Central School District directed the graduation ceremony and reviewed student speeches, the inclusion of the student’s Christian message might reasonably be perceived as endorsement of religion by the middle school.

The student’s appeal in A.M. v. Taconic Hills Central School District (No. 12-1479) argued that her remarks were private speech, and that the school engaged in viewpoint discrimination in censoring them.

Campaign Finance, Age Bias

The court also heard arguments last week in two cases of interest to educators.

In a case about campaign finance, the politically active teachers’ unions filed or joined friend-of-the-court briefs arguing for upholding aggregate federal limits on contributions by individuals. The aggregate limits are meant to prevent a donor from circumventing direct campaign-contribution limits by giving to multiple candidates, parties, and party committees, all in support of a desired candidate.

The limits are being challenged on First Amendment free-speech grounds by Shaun McCutcheon, an Alabama business owner and Republican Party activist, who would like to give more than current limits allow.

The National Education Association, citing its interest in “fair elections and clean government,” said in its brief that the aggregate limits are justified “by the compelling interest in combating both the reality and appearance of corruption arising from large campaign contributions.”

The American Federation of Teachers made a similar point in its brief, saying that without the aggregate limits, “a small cadre of donors will be able to contribute millions of dollars to candidates, parties, and political action committees, and candidates and officeholders will be permitted to solicit large sums from potential donors, functionally reviving the ‘soft money’ system that Congress acted to end a mere 11 years ago.”

At the Oct. 8 arguments in McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission (No. 12-536), the court’s conservative members appeared skeptical of the aggregate limits, while the court’s liberals suggested they were necessary to stem the growing influence of wealthy donors in federal elections.

On a separate matter, the justices a day before heard arguments in Madigan v. Levin (No. 12-872), a case about whether public employees may sue for age discrimination under the equal-protection clause of the 14th Amendment in addition to the federal Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967.

The question is significant, and the case drew friend-of-the-court briefs from the National School Boards Association (on the side of public employers) and the NEA (on the side of employees).

The oral arguments exposed procedural problems with the case, brought by a 61-year-old assistant state attorney general in Illinois who claims he suffered age bias when he was dismissed and replaced by a younger lawyer. The justices indicated they might dismiss the appeal or send the case back to lower courts.

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A version of this article appeared in the October 16, 2013 edition of Education Week as School-Related Cases Factor in Supreme Court’s First Week Back

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