Law & Courts

High Court Orders New Review of Michigan Title IX Case

By Caroline Hendrie — May 10, 2005 5 min read

A long-running legal battle over the scheduling of high school girls’ sports in Michigan entered a new round last week as the U.S. Supreme Court sent the gender-equity case back to a federal appeals court for reconsideration.

Though legal technicalities are at issue, how they are resolved could have a broad effect on lawsuits involving Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in education programs that receive federal money.

Last July, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit affirmed a lower-court decision finding that the Michigan High School Athletic Association illegally discriminated against girls by making them play in “nontraditional” seasons that put them at a disadvantage compared with male athletes.

On May 2, the Supreme Court vacated that unanimous decision and directed the Cincinnati-based appeals court to reconsider the Michigan case in light of a recent high court ruling involving a broad federal civil rights statute cited by the plaintiffs.

A spokeswoman for Communities for Equity, a grassroots parents’ group based in Grand Rapids, Mich., expressed disappointment last week. The group’s lawyers predicted, though, that the 6th Circuit court would again side with the plaintiffs and require shifts in which seasons Michigan girls compete in basketball, volleyball, and other sports.

“It’s very likely that the 6th Circuit will look at this [civil rights] case and realize it doesn’t apply, and reaffirm its earlier decision,” said Neena K. Chaudhry, a lawyer with the National Women’s Law Center in Washington who represents the Michigan plaintiffs.

Edmund J. Sikorski Jr., a lawyer for the Michigan High School Athletic Association, began laughing loudly in a telephone interview last week when told of Ms. Chaudhry’s prediction.

“I’m splitting a gut,” he said. “You think the Supreme Court does this for somebody’s health? The world doesn’t operate that way.”

Association officials welcomed the reprieve, even though school administrators in Michigan have worked up alternative sports schedules for the coming school year—an effort that last week’s action threw into limbo.

Seasonal Changes?

Filed in 1998, the Michigan case went to trial in 2001 over whether the association’s scheduling decisions shortchanged girls by curtailing their access to college recruiters, high-quality competition, and other opportunities.

High school girls in Michigan play basketball in the fall and volleyball in the winter, for example, the reverse of most other states. Other sports at issue are golf, soccer, swimming, and tennis.

A U.S. District Court judge in Kalamazoo, Mich., ruled in 2001 that the association had run afoul of the 14th Amendment’s guarantee of equal protection under the law, Title IX, and a state civil rights law.

The plaintiffs had used a federal civil rights law, known as Section 1983, to assert the equal-protection claim. In its March decision in City of Rancho Palos Verdes v. Abrams, the Supreme Court ruled that an individual could not sue a city under Section 1983 when a federal telecommunications statute provided a remedy for a dispute about an antenna.

School districts are often sued under Section 1983, even if other federal education statutes provide potential remedies.

In its appeal to the Supreme Court, the association argued that plaintiffs alleging violations of Title IX cannot pursue Section 1983 claims as well. The 6th Circuit Court panel had upheld the lower court’s ruling on the constitutional grounds and didn’t get into the Title IX claim.

It is that issue—whether plaintiffs in school-related sex-discrimination cases can assert claims under the Constitution as well as Title IX—that the Supreme Court has effectively asked the Cincinnati appeals court to consider.

The athletic association’s lawyers argue that if Section 1983 claims are allowed, then schools could be found liable for even minor differences in programs for girls and boys if officials could not show an “exceedingly persuasive justification” for the distinctions.

Complying with Title IX gives schools enough to worry about, the association argues. “[E]ducational institutions have traditionally relied on compliance with Title IX and its implementing regulations to fulfill their legal obligations,” the association says in its Supreme Court brief.

A Broad Impact?

But lawyers for the Michigan parents argue that Title IX should not be the only legal avenue open, whether in disputes over sports, sexual harassment, or other areas covered by that law. The statute applies only to recipients of federal funds, they note, and some conditions that run afoul of the equal-protection clause may not violate Title IX.

A ruling against the Michigan girls on that issue, especially by the Supreme Court, could have a broad impact, they add.

“It could have far-reaching effects, and we think they could be very damaging,” said Ms. Chaudhry of the National Women’s Law Center.

Recruitment Case Taken

The Supreme Court’s action in Michigan High School Athletic Association v. Communities for Equity (Case No. 04-1021) came as it agreed to review another case that could affect K-12 schools: a dispute over a federal law that penalizes colleges and universities that limit access to military recruiters.

Some analysts said the outcome could affect the enforcement of a separate provision of the federal No Child Left Behind Act that requires public school districts to make student information available to the military. (“Military Recruiters Meet Pockets of Resistance,” April 23, 2003.)

In accepting the Bush administration’s appeal in Rumsfeld v. Forum for Academic and Institutional Rights (No. 04-1152), the high court will consider whether higher education institutions are indirectly forced to endorse the U.S. armed forces’ “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy toward homosexuality under a 1994 law known as the Solomon Amendment.

Julie Underwood, the general counsel for the National School Boards Association, said the group was studying the case.

“I see implications for No Child Left Behind, because they really are parallel requirements,” she said.

Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Student Well-Being Webinar
A Safe Return to Schools is Possible with Testing
We are edging closer to a nationwide return to in-person learning in the fall. However, vaccinations alone will not get us through this. Young children not being able to vaccinate, the spread of new and
Content provided by BD
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Teaching Webinar
Meeting the Moment: Accelerating Equitable Recovery and Transformative Change
Educators are deciding how best to re-establish routines such as everyday attendance, rebuild the relationships for resilient school communities, and center teaching and learning to consciously prioritize protecting the health and overall well-being of students
Content provided by Campaign for Grade-Level Reading
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Reading & Literacy Webinar
Addressing Learning Loss: What Schools Need to Accelerate Reading Instruction in K-3
When K-3 students return to classrooms this fall, there will be huge gaps in foundational reading skills. Does your school or district need a plan to address learning loss and accelerate student growth? In this
Content provided by PDX Reading

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Law & Courts 'I Just Want to Play.' Judge Halts W. Va. Law Barring Transgender Girls From Girls' Sports
Ruling for an 11-year-old transgender girl, the judge holds that the law likely violates the equal-protection clause and Title IX.
3 min read
Image of a gavel.
Marilyn Nieves/E+
Law & Courts Praying Coach v. District That Suspended Him: What's Next in Fight Over Religious Expression
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit declined to reconsider an earlier panel ruling that sided with the school district.
4 min read
Bremerton High School assistant football coach Joe Kennedy, center in blue, kneels and prays after his team lost to Centralia in Bremerton, Wash., on Oct. 16, 2015. Kennedy, who was suspended for praying at midfield after games, has filed a discrimination complaint on Tuesday, Dec. 15, 2015 with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission according to The Liberty Institute, a Texas-based law firm representing the coach.
Joe Kennedy, center in blue, kneels and prays after a game in October 2015 when he was the assistant football coach at Bremerton High School in Bremerton, Wash. In a long-running legal fight, Kennedy contends he has First Amendment free-speech and free-exercise-of-religion rights to express his Christian faith while on the job. The case is likely headed back to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Lindsey Wasso/The Seattle Times via AP
Law & Courts Appeals Court Again Backs Transgender Student, But on Narrower Grounds Amid Signs of Rift
A federal appeals panel removed a holding for student Drew Adams based on Title IX, perhaps to ward off a rehearing by the full court.
4 min read
Image of a gavel.
Marilyn Nieves/E+
Law & Courts Schools Will Get At Least $25 Million From Opioid Lawsuit
Lawyers are aiming to place significantly more money into the grant program as school districts' lawsuits against opioid companies continue.
3 min read
This June 17, 2019, photo shows 5-mg pills of Oxycodone.
This June 17, 2019, photo shows 5-mg pills of Oxycodone.
Keith Srakocic/AP