Law & Courts

K-12 Issues Within Broad Sweep of Recent High Court Rulings

By Mark Walsh — July 02, 2015 6 min read
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Even when the U.S. Supreme Court is not weighing cases directly involving education, many of its decisions reach into the schools.

That much is evident from the blockbuster term that ended last week and included rulings on free speech, employment and housing discrimination, same-sex marriage, criminal law, and health care—all of which had implications for teachers, districts, parents, or children.

“The court made monumental decisions this term that will change the face of this country for a long time to come, and in cases that implicate schools” and educators, said Alice O’Brien, the general counsel of the National Education Association, which filed friend-of-the-court briefs in several cases.

Slideshow: Quotes From the Justices

At the start of the term, Education Week reported that the justices had not taken up a case directly involving a K-12 school district or local school officials for more than five years. This newspaper’s analysis last October—and public comments by at least some justices—suggested that they believed the high court should not get deeply involved in school disputes.

The five-year string was broken last week, when the court said it would review a case involving teachers’ unions and the collective bargaining fees they charge those who decline to join.

Ten district superintendents are parties (albeit secondary ones) in Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, in which the justices are being asked by union opponents to overrule a key precedent and hold that such fees violate the free-speech rights of nonmembers.

That case, and one that again examines race-conscious admissions at the University of Texas, are on the high court’s docket for next term.

For the term that just ended, the justice’s rulings from various corners of the law will be felt directly or indirectly in the K-12 arena.

The 2014 -15 Term: Notable Cases for Educators

Even in a term with no cases directly involving school districts, the U.S. Supreme Court issued rulings with the potential to affect schools in the areas of criminal law, free speech, discrimination, and health care.

Teacher Testimony
The court ruled unanimously that a child’s statement to his teachers about physical abuse at home that was introduced at trial without the testimony of the child did not violate the constitutional right of the accused to confront the witnesses against him. The case of Ohio v. Clark (No. 13-1352) had raised concerns from education groups because Ohio’s highest court had held that the mandatory duty for teachers to report child abuse effectively made them agents of law enforcement because the state expected them to help identify the perpetrators of abuse. The Supreme Court’s decision rejected that view, saying that “mandatory reporting statutes alone cannot convert a conversation between a concerned teacher and her student into a law enforcement mission.”

Same-Sex Marriage
The justices ruled 5-4 in Obergefell  v. Hodges (No. 14-556) that the 14th amendment’s due process and equal protection clauses require every state to license same-sex marriages and to recognize such marriages performed in other states. The issue holds various implications for the nation’s schools, including for employee benefits, parental rights, and the effect on school atmosphere for gay youths. The majority noted that hundreds of thousands of children are being raised by same-sex couples, and said the institution of marriage “safeguards children and families and thus draws meaning from related rights of childrearing, procreation, and education.”

School Records and the Death Penalty
In a case touching on school records and IQ test scores, the court ruled 5-4 in Brumfield v. Cain (No. 13-1433) that a Louisiana death-row inmate deserved a chance to prove in federal court that he was intellectually disabled and thus ineligible for execution. The majority said that an individual who was placed in special education at an early age, was committed to mental health facilities, reads at a 4th grade level, and cannot process information, had raised substantial reason to show he suffers from “adaptive impairments” and qualifies as intellectually disabled under Louisiana’s standards.

Internet Speech
The court ruled 8-1 to throw out the federal conviction of a Pennsylvania man who had made threats on Facebook that included rap-lyric-style musings about shooting up an elementary school. The majority stopped short in Elonis v. United States (No. 13-983) of making any broad First Amendment rulings about threats on the Internet. It ruled that it was inappropriate to use a “reasonable person” standard for evaluating threats under federal criminal law. The decision did not provide much First Amendment guidance about how authorities should weigh Internet threats by students and others.

Religious Discrimination
The justices ruled 8-1 to bolster religious protections for employees under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In Equal Employment Opportunity Commission  v. Abercrombie & Fitch Stores Inc. (No. 14-86), the court ruled in the case of a young Muslim woman who was denied a job at the clothing retailer because she wore a head scarf. The justices rejected a lower court’s interpretation that a job applicant seeking a religious accommodation would need to provide explicit, verbal notice to the employer. The majority said that to prevail in a religious-bias claim, the applicant need only show that his or her need for an accommodation was a motivating factor in the employer’s decision.

Confederate Flag
The justices ruled 5-4 that a Texas program offering more than 350 specialty messages on license plates involves government speech and thus, the state could reject an image—a Confederate battle flag—with which the state did not want to be associated. The case of Walker  v. Texas Division, Sons of Confederate Veterans Inc. (No. 14-144) held implications for education both because Confederate symbols worn by students have been a source of friction and because of the larger First Amendment implications about whether schools might be associated with private speech.

Pregnancy Discrimination
The court made it easier for pregnant workers to press discrimination claims over whether employers are treating them less favorably than non-pregnant workers who may need similar accommodations. In Young  v. United Parcel Service Inc. (Case No. 12-1226), the justices ruled 6-3 that a pregnant worker should be able to prove a violation of the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978, by showing that she belongs to the protected class, that she sought an accommodation, that the employer did not accommodate her, and the employer did accommodate others similar in their ability or inability to work. In this case, the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers had filed a friend-of-the-court brief on the side of the employee, stressing the importance of the pregnancy-bias law to the empowerment of female workers.

Housing Discrimination
The court ruled 5-4 in Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs  v. The Inclusive Communities Project Inc. (No. 13-1371) that “disparate-impact” claims may be brought under the Fair Housing Act of 1968. Civil rights advocates had feared that a decision outlawing suits based on such discriminatory effects would worsen racial isolation in the nation’s schools. The court placed qualifications on disparate-impact claims, but the decision could bolster the U.S. Department of Education’s assertions of authority to regulate discriminatory effects in the schools.

Affordable Care Act
The justices ruled 6-3 that tax credits under the Affordable Care Act are available to individuals nationwide, regardless of whether a state has established its own insurance exchange. The case of King  v. Burwell (No. 14-114) was being watched by teachers’ unions and school board groups because of the potential disruption to benefits had the ruling gone the other way. And a group of school districts in Indiana has joined that state in a lawsuit challenging the so-called employer mandate of the health-care law.

Source: Education Week

Three of those cases—on pregnancy discrimination, religious accommodations, and Internet threats—were decided earlier in the term. But the final two weeks of the term saw a flurry of decisions that were being awaited with interest by educators.

Statements to Teachers

At the top of that list is Ohio v. Clark, a case that had raised fears among school groups about whether teachers could be considered agents of law enforcement if they ask a student about signs of child abuse.

The court ruled unanimously that the rights of the accused were not infringed when prosecutors relied on a teacher’s testimony when a young victim was unable or unfit to testify.

Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. wrote for six justices that under the court’s recent precedents about the Sixth Amendment right of defendants to confront the witnesses against them, a child’s statements to his or her teachers about abuse or other wrongdoing are unlikely to be considered “testimonial"—that is, statements that would normally invoke the amendment’s protections.

“Statements by very young children will rarely, if ever, implicate the confrontation clause,” Justice Alito said.

And the majority gave little credence to an argument by the defendant—an Ohio man convicted of physical abuse of a 3-year-old—that the state’s legal requirement that teachers and certain other professional report signs of abuse effectively turned them into adjuncts of law enforcement.

“Mandatory-reporting statutes alone cannot convert a conversation between a concerned teacher and her student into a law-enforcement mission aimed primarily at gathering evidence for a prosecution,” Justice Alito said.

Ms. O’Brien of the NEA said the union and other education groups were pleased with the ruling, after a lower-court decision in the case had raised fears that teachers would be “suddenly deputized” as law-enforcement officers.

Cynthia Jones, an associate law professor and expert on criminal law at American University, said it wasn’t surprising for the court to conclude that a child’s statements to a teacher are unlikely to be testimonial.

But as for Justice Alito’s more sweeping conclusion that a child’s statement would rarely trigger the confrontation rights of a defendant, “I am more troubled by that,” she said.

Government Speech

The same day of that decision, the justices ruled in Walker v. Texas Division, Sons of Confederate Veterans Inc. that a state could keep a Confederate emblem out of its specialty-license-plate program, even though the state issued plates for a wide variety of other groups and causes, such as colleges.

The decision holds implications for speech battles in schools, both because Confederate symbols have often been a source of friction and because of the ruling’s discussion of government-sponsored speech.

“Texas’s specialty-license-plate designs are meant to convey and have the effect of conveying a government message,” Justice Stephen G. Breyer wrote for a majority that also included Justices Clarence Thomas, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan.

Justice Alito, in a dissent joined by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justices Antonin Scalia and Anthony M. Kennedy, acknowledged that the Confederate battle flag was a “controversial symbol” that evoked respect for Southern heritage to some, but “slavery, segregation, and hatred” to others.

But “the flag expresses a viewpoint,” Justice Alito said, and the state’s rejection of it for its license plates was unconstitutional viewpoint discrimination. (The court issued its decision a day after a white gunman killed nine black people at a church in Charleston, S.C., but just before that crime sparked a fresh debate about displaying the Confederate battle flag.)

Aside from Confederate symbols, briefs and opinions in the case cited other areas that could implicate the government-speech doctrine, including ads in school yearbooks, school districts’ internal mail systems, and college-campus bulletin boards, both electronic and the old-fashioned kind.

Nadine Strossen, a professor at New York Law School and a former president of the American Civil Liberties Union, said she worried the decision could spur schools to invoke the government-speech theory any time there was some mix of student and school participation in a message.

“It’s hard to find a limiting principle in this,” she said in an interview.

Health-Care Law and Marriage

The two highest-profile decisions are likely to be felt in the schools, too.

In King v. Burwell, the justices ruled 6-3 that tax credits under the Affordable Care Act are available nationwide. President Barack Obama’s administration was supported in the case by the NEA, which cited its interest in ensuring that its members, and the children they teach, have access to affordable health care. Meanwhile, a group of school districts in Indiana supported challengers of the provision and are pressing their own suit against the law’s so-called employer mandate.

And in Obergefell v. Hodges, the court ruled 5-4 that same-sex couples have a 14th Amendment due-process and equal-protection right to marry. That issue’s effects for schools include the areas of employee benefits, parental rights, and school climate for gay youths.

Writing for the majority in Obergefell, Justice Kennedy stressed the importance of the institution of marriage and the role it plays in safeguarding children.

“Hundreds of thousands of children are presently being raised by” same-sex couples, Justice Kennedy said. “Most states have allowed gays and lesbians to adopt, either as individuals or as couples, and many adopted and foster children have same-sex parents. This provides powerful confirmation from the law itself that gays and lesbians can create loving, supportive families.”

All four dissenters—Chief Justice Roberts, and Justices Scalia, Thomas, and Alito—wrote separate opinions.

Justice Alito expressed concern about whether those who continue to oppose same-sex marriage will still see their “rights of conscience” recognized, including by schools.

“I assume that those who cling to old beliefs will be able to whisper their thoughts in the recesses of their homes, but if they repeat those views in public, they will risk being labeled as bigots and treated as such by governments, employers, and schools,” he said.

A version of this article appeared in the July 08, 2015 edition of Education Week as K-12 Issues Fall Within Sweep of Recent High Court Rulings


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