Published: November 15, 2005
The Supreme Court ruled in a closely watched education case on Monday that parents who disagree with a school system’s special-education plan for their child have the legal burden of proving that the plan will not provide the ”appropriate” education to which federal law entitles all children with disabilities.
The 6-to-2 decision, in a case from a Washington suburb, Montgomery County, Md., affirmed a ruling last year by the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, in Richmond, Va. Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. did not take part in the case, which was argued on Oct. 5, because his former law firm represented the school district.
The decision, which is likely to affect hundreds of cases a year, was a disappointment for parents and disability rights groups who argued that making them prove that special-education programs were inadequate gave school districts little incentive to address their complaints.
“Until now, there has been impetus for both sides to really mediate and work things out,” said Wendy Byrnes, a parent advocate at the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund in Berkeley, Calif., who added that most cases are settled in mediation. “This decision tips the scale in the district’s favor, so that a school district will not be so motivated to work something out.”
The National School Boards Association praised the decision, saying it would allow districts to “spend the money and resources on educating children, not legal proceedings.”
The Bush administration had originally entered the case on behalf of the parents, arguing that under the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act, a district had the burden of proving the adequacy of a student’s ”individualized education program” rather than the other way around.
But when the case reached the Supreme Court, the administration switched sides, arguing that the court should apply the “traditional rule” in civil cases that “the party initiating and seeking relief” bears the burden of proof. This was the argument that Justice Sandra Day O’Connor accepted in her majority opinion.
There are nearly seven million students in the country who receive special education services under the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act, which in several earlier forms dates from 1970. To fulfill the law’s requirement to provide a “free appropriate public education,” school districts work with parents to develop an individual program for each student with a disability. Depending on the child’s needs, the program can provide anything from a weekly session with a speech teacher to placement at taxpayer expense in a private residential program.
When parents and school officials cannot agree, the law provides for a “due process hearing” before an administrative law judge or other impartial decision maker. When the evidence on each side is roughly equal, the allocation of the burden of proof can make all the difference in the outcome of the hearing. Yet Congress has never specified on which side the burden falls, and federal courts around the country have reached opposite conclusions.
The case the Supreme Court decided, Schaffer v. Weast, No. 04-698, began in 1997, when Jocelyn and Martin Schaffer took their son Brian out of seventh grade in a private school and sought a placement for him in the Montgomery County system. Brian had been given diagnoses of several learning disabilities.
The tangled course of the case demonstrates the importance of the burden of proof.
The Schaffers disapproved of the options that the school district offered in two public middle schools, finding the class sizes too large. They enrolled their son in another private school and sought tuition reimbursement from the county. After a three-day hearing, an administrative law judge said the case was close, but ruled for the school system on the ground that the parents had the burden of proof.
The Schaffers took their case to Federal District Court in Greenbelt, Md., where Judge Peter J. Messitte ruled that the administrative law judge had been wrong about the burden of proof and sent the case back for a new hearing. This time, the judge ruled for the parents. Eventually, the case reached the Fourth Circuit, which in a 2-to-1 decision placed the burden of proof on the parents and ruled for the school district.
In her decision upholding that ruling, Justice O’Connor said that “absent some reason to believe that Congress intended otherwise,” the burden of proof should be “where it usually falls, upon the party seeking relief.” On the infrequent occasions when a school district seeks a hearing, that means that the district would bear the burden.
Because Maryland law is silent on the question, the court did not have occasion to rule on whether states could decide on their own, as several have, to place the burden on the school district. Connecticut, Virginia and seven other states filed a brief with the court urging the justices to leave the issue up to the states as a matter of federalism.
Montgomery County has 17,000 students receiving special education services. Just a few dozen cases a year reach administrative hearings.
Jerry D. Weast, the school superintendent, said in an interview that the decision was significant nonetheless for clarifying the law and establishing the presumption that school officials are acting correctly.
Mr. Weast said he attached special importance to a concurring opinion by Justice John Paul Stevens, who said that the legal issue was close but that on balance “I believe that we should presume that public school officials are properly performing their difficult responsibilities under this important statute.”
Justices Anthony M. Kennedy, Antonin Scalia, David H. Souter and Clarence Thomas also joined the majority opinion.
Justices Stephen G. Breyer and Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote separate dissenting opinions. Justice Ginsburg quoted at length from the dissenting opinion filed in the Fourth Circuit by Judge J. Michael Luttig.
“The party with the ‘bigger guns’ also has better access to information, greater expertise, and an affirmative obligation to provide the contested services,” Judge Luttig wrote in explaining why he thought the district should bear the burden.
Justice Breyer said Congress had left the matter to the states.
Brian Schaffer, the student at the center of the case, eventually returned to the public school system and graduated from high school in 2003. He is now in college.
Nonetheless, Jocelyn Schaffer, his mother, explained that she pursued the case because “I felt the pain of other parents in a similar situation.”
“There are so many parents who don’t have the means to send their kids to private schools and what they’re offered by the public schools is inadequate,” Ms. Schaffer said.
Other developments at the court on Monday included these.
Prisoners’ Reading Rights.
The court accepted an appeal filed by the State of Pennsylvania from a ruling that invalidated a policy depriving prisoners housed in a special maximum security unit of the right to receive magazines and newspapers.
The United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit ruled by a 2-to-1 vote that the policy violated the First Amendment, even by the relaxed constitutional standards that apply to prison regulations. There was “no valid, rational connection” between the policy and “its stated rehabilitative purpose,” the majority said.
The dissenter was Judge Samuel A. Alito Jr., President Bush’s latest Supreme Court nominee, who wrote: “The entire system of prison discipline might be imperiled if each sanction for prison misconduct could not be sustained without empirical evidence that the sanction provided some incremental deterrent.”
The case, Beard v. Banks, No. 04-1739, will be argued in March. If Judge Alito is confirmed and seated by then, he will not participate.
Felons’ Voting Rights
Without comment, the court refused to hear a challenge to a Florida law that permanently deprives convicted felons of the right to vote. The law has the effect of disenfranchising more than 600,000 Florida residents, including 10.5 percent of the black voting-age population, some 167,000 people.
Just 4 percent of nonblack Floridians are similarly affected. The plaintiffs in the class-action suit argued that the disproportionate effect amounted to a violation of the federal Voting Rights Act.
The case, Johnson v. Bush, No. 05-212, has never gone to trial. The Federal District Court in Miami dismissed the case in 2002. It was reinstated in 2003 by a panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit, in Atlanta, but dismissed again last April by the full appeals court.
Twelve other states impose lifetime disenfranchisement on convicted felons, and nearly all others prohibit prison inmates and those on probation or parole from voting. The policies are believed to apply to nearly five million people. Those laws are being challenged around the country. A case was argued in June before the federal appeals court in New York. It is possible that the court may eventually take one of the cases.