Law & Courts

The Supreme Court’s 2013-2014 Term: Notable Cases for Educators

By Mark Walsh — July 08, 2014 3 min read

The justices dealt with several cases of interest to educators, including disputes involving race in college admissions, prayers at government meetings, the rights of public employees, the role of IQ scores in the death penalty, and a case about cellphone privacy that could affect students.

State Prohibition on Race-Conscious Admissions
The court ruled 6-2 in Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action (Case No. 12-682) to uphold a 2006 Michigan ballot initiative that bars race-based preferences in admissions at the state’s universities. No opinion commanded a majority of the court. In a plurality opinion signed by two other members of the court, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy said there was no authority in the U.S. Constitution or in the court’s precedents for the judiciary to set aside Michigan laws that allow voters to decide whether racial preferences may be considered in school admissions.

Prayers at Municipal Meetings
The justices ruled 5-4 to uphold a town’s practice of permitting private individuals to deliver prayers before town council meetings, despite the predominantly Christian and sometimes proselytizing nature of the prayers. The majority said its decision in Town of Greece, N.Y. v. Galloway (No. 12-696) was governed by the high court’s 1983 decision in Marsh v. Chambers, which upheld prayers delivered before the Nebraska legislature. Legal experts disagreed about whether prayers at school board meetings would be permitted under the court’s decision.

Public-Employee Unions
In a case closely watched by the teachers’ unions, the court in Harris v. Quinn (No. 11-681) declined entreaties from “right-to-work” advocates to overrule a key precedent allowing public-employee unions to collect so-called agency fees from workers who refuse to join the union but are covered by a collective-bargaining agreement. Ruling 5-4, the justices refused to extend the 1977 case, Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, to home-health care workers in Illinois whom the court deemed to be only quasi-public employees. Still, the majority cast serious doubt about the future of the Abood precedent.

Government-Employee Speech
The court gave public employees such as teachers and administrators stronger First Amendment speech protections when they testify under oath. The unanimous decision in Lane v. Franks (No. 13-483) came in the case of the head of an at-risk youth program administered by an Alabama community college who was fired after he testified against a state legislator who held a no-show job. The justices said sworn testimony was outside the scope of the administrator’s ordinary job duties and was protected under the First Amendment as speech by a citizen on a matter of public concern.

IQ Scores and the Death Penalty
The court ruled 5-4 in Hall v. Florida (No. 10-10882) that a state may not set an IQ score of 70 or below as the rigid cutoff that would permit it to execute a person with an intellectual disability. The case of a longtime Florida death row inmate whose teachers once classified him as “mentally retarded” was one that invited much debate over the role of IQ scores and the educational and intellectual development of capital defendants. The court said intellectual disability was “a condition, not a number,” and that Florida’s rigid cutoff score failed to take into account the standard error of measurement, in disregard of established medical practice.

Cell Phones
The justices unanimously gave strong Fourth Amendment protection to the contents of cellphones. The decision in Riley v. California (No. 13-132) concerned warrantless police searches of the phones of criminal suspects who were under arrest, but the court’s expansive reasoning could potentially be interpreted to protect students’ digital devices from searches by school administrators. The court’s opinion stressed that cellphone users carry a digital record of nearly every aspect of their lives—“from the mundane to the intimate.”

A version of this article appeared in the July 10, 2014 edition of Education Week as The 2013-2014 Term: Notable Cases


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