The Bush administration has urged the U.S. Supreme Court to take up the question of whether parents who are not lawyers can represent their children in federal court over issues related to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.
The court is considering whether to hear an appeal brought by Jeff and Sandee Winkleman, who argue that the 13,000-student Parma school district did not craft an appropriate educational plan for their 8-year-old son, Jacob, who has autism.
After several administrative hearings at which the parents represented their son, the Winklemans sued the district in U.S District Court in Cleveland, challenging the hearing officers’ decisions that the district had provided their son a free, appropriate public education as required under the IDEA.
The district court ruled in favor of the Parma school system in June 2005. The family appealed, but the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit, in Cincinnati, ruled last November that the parents could not proceed in that court without a lawyer.
The parents appealed to the Supreme Court, and in May the justices asked the Bush administration to weigh in on Winkleman v. Parma City School District (Case No. 05-983).
In a friend-of-the-court brief filed Sept. 20, U.S. Solicitor General Paul D. Clement argues that the IDEA authorizes parents to bring special education cases to federal court without a lawyer.
“[P]arents are parties in their own right in IDEA actions, not merely guardians of their children’s rights,” Mr. Clement says in the brief.
The solicitor general’s brief also outlines the split in the federal courts of appeals on the question of whether parents who are not lawyers can press IDEA cases in federal courts.
The U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit, in Philadelphia, has ruled that parents have no substantive right of their own under the IDEA, and therefore cannot proceed without an attorney in federal court, according to the solicitor general’s brief. However, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 1st Circuit, in Boston, has held that parents are indeed “parties aggrieved” within the meaning of the IDEA, and thus may represent their children in federal court.
Jean-Claude André, a Los Angeles lawyer who is representing the Winklemans in their Supreme Court case on a pro bono basis, said in an interview that he was ecstatic that the solicitor general suggested that the court take the case, and that the administration was taking the side of the parents.
“It’s about access to the courts for these families,” Mr. André said. Mr. Winkleman works two jobs, while Ms. Winkleman stays home to care for her two children, both of whom have autism, he said. Their household income is less than $40,000 a year, and they face a mortgage and significant medical bills, according to a their Supreme Court brief.
“If you make them get a lawyer, there’s no way they can operate in the black,” Mr. André said.
The school district argues that the case does not merit the court’s time because it involves application of “well-settled” law, and that the IDEA does not give the parents the right to represent their children in court.
“This exclusion comports with the venerable common-law rule that non-attorneys may not represent the interests of another in court,” Christina Henagen Peer, a lawyer for the school district, argues in a brief filed with the Supreme Court.
A version of this article appeared in the October 04, 2006 edition of Education Week as Court Is Urged to Hear Case on Parent Representation Under IDEA