Law & Courts

Supreme Court: A Preview of the New Term

By Mark Walsh — October 02, 2008 3 min read
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The 2008-09 term of the U.S. Supreme Court, which formally begins this week, has a docket that includes education-related cases involving employment and sex discrimination, the rights of teachers’ unions, and legal immunity for public officials, including educators. The justices will continue to add cases to be heard during the new term for the next several months. These are among the cases already accepted for review:

Title IX

In what could be the most significant case for education, the justices will decide whether Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 provides the exclusive legal remedy for cases of sex discrimination in public schools.

The parents of a Massachusetts kindergartner who allegedly faced sexual harassment from a 3rd grader on her school bus are seeking to be able to sue school officials under a broader federal civil rights law after their Title IX claim was rejected. Claims brought under Section 1983, which derives from the Civil Rights Act of 1871, typically allege a violation of the equal-protection clause of the 14th Amendment. Such a constitutional claim doesn’t necessarily face the same legal hurdles that Title IX claims face.

The case arises out of claims that officials of the 4,460-student Barnstable school district failed to do enough to address the harassment of the kindergartner. The federal appeals court that ruled against the family’s Title IX claim held in the same decision that the family’s Section 1983 claim was foreclosed by the more recent federal statute.

Fitzgerald v. Barnstable School Committee (Case No. 07-1125) is scheduled for argument Dec. 2.

Teachers’ Unions

The court will review an Idaho law that bars school districts and other local government agencies from making deductions from employees’ paychecks for political causes.

The Idaho Education Association, its Pocatello affiliate, and several other public-employee unions in the state, which rely on the deductions to help pay for their political action committees, challenged the law as an infringement of their First Amendment rights of free speech and association.

A federal appeals court agreed with the unions and struck down the Idaho law as hampering their political speech. The Supreme Court accepted the state’s request to review the ruling.

Ysursa v. Pocatello Education Association (No. 07-869) will be argued Nov. 3.

Employment Discrimination

A case stemming from the central office of the Nashville-Davidson County, Tenn., school system will provide the basis for a potentially important ruling on job discrimination.

The question is whether Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 protects a worker from being dismissed because she cooperated with her employer’s internal investigation of alleged sexual harassment of another worker. Vicky S. Crawford, a district payroll coordinator who had cooperated in the investigation of her boss, the director of employee relations, was dismissed a few months later for alleged financial improprieties. Ms. Crawford claimed it was a case of retaliation, but two lower federal courts held that her situation was not covered by a Title VII provision meant to protect workers who participate in internal investigations.

The justices agreed to review those rulings in Crawford v. Metropolitan Government of Nashville and Davidson County (No. 06-1595), which will be argued Oct. 8.

Legal Immunity

School administrators and teachers usually don’t have much reason to follow Supreme Court cases about the constitutionality of a police search of a home for illegal drugs. But such a case from Utah presents an important question about qualified immunity, the principle that public officials such as school principals or police officers do not face liability as long as their challenged actions did not violate clearly established law.

In Pearson v. Callahan (No. 07-751), the justices have asked the parties to use the case of a challenged police search to also address a Supreme Court precedent that requires lower courts weighing civil rights challenges to first decide whether any constitutional violation occurred before deciding whether the official merits qualified immunity.

The theory under that 2001 decision, Saucier v. Katz, is that without courts first ruling on constitutional questions, the law would go undeveloped in many areas. But many legal commentators have criticized the ruling, and a decision by the justices to overturn it in this case would make it easier for school administrators and other officials to stop lawsuits against them earlier in the legal process.

The case will be argued Oct. 14.

A version of this article appeared in the October 08, 2008 edition of Education Week as Supreme Court: A Preview of the New Term

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