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April 27th, 2012
 

A Constitutional Right to Education?

By Nathan Tucker

The answer to that question depends on which Iowa Supreme Court justice you ask, and whether or not it is a retention election year.  Despite a recent stretch of relative calm on the Court since last summer, justices gave vent to their disagreements in an extremely fractured case that produced five opinions and showed that at least one justice is fully cognizant of the voters he faces in November.

In King v. State of Iowa, sixteen students and parents sued the State, claiming “that Iowa’s educational system is not adequately serving students in either the largest  or the smallest school districts.”  They “alleged that there exists a ‘disparity in educational outcomes [in Iowa] based upon where one goes to school’ and there has been a ‘failure to provide similar educational opportunities for all of Iowa’s students.’”

The Plaintiffs argued that the State abridged their constitutional right to an education by failing “to establish standards, to enforce any standards, to adopt effective educator pay systems, and to establish and maintain an adequate education delivery system.”  They sought a court order directing the State to “undertake all suitable means to provide an effective education.”

While four of the Court’s seven justices ruled that, even if true, the Plaintiffs’ allegations did not arise to a constitutional violation, it is disturbing that five of the justices were, at a minimum, open to creating a constitutional right to an education out of judicial whole cloth.

Justice Mansfield, joined by Justice Zager, wrote that, while there may be a constitutional right to an education, it does not require the State to provide a “minimally sufficient education.”  On three separate occasions, Justice Mansfield qualified the Court’s holding by stating that it “does not foreclose future constitutional challenges” and that “we defer to another day the question whether education can amount to a fundamental right under the Iowa Constitution.”

Chief Justice Cady argued that while there may likely be a constitutional right to an education that does require the State to provide a “minimally sufficient education,” such a right was not violated in this case.   While admitting that the “point when a state’s educational system becomes minimally insufficient would be difficult to ascertain in the context of a constitutional analysis,” he is “simply content that the allegations of the petition in this case fall short.”

Justice Waterman strongly suggested that there could never be a constitutional right to an education, or at least one that is judicially enforceable.  In “emphasiz[ing] the importance of judicial restraint when litigants ask courts to overstep their bounds,”  he cautioned that “we do not sit as the supreme school board of the State of Iowa, and we are unwilling in the guise of adjudication to usurp powers the Iowa Constitution cedes to the elected branches to run our public schools.”

Justice Appel, joined by Justice Hecht, not only definitely discovered a new constitutional right to a free public education, but held that the State must provide a “minimally sufficient education.”

Out of all the justices, Wiggins alone declined to state whether or not there was a constitutional right to education, arguing rather disingenuously that such issues had not been “raised or briefed in this court” and therefore “members of the court should not be espousing their own views” on these questions.

It seems hard to believe, however, that an activist justice like Wiggins would have taken the same stance if Appel’s position commanded a majority of votes.  The sole reason for remanding these issues to the trial court is the hope that, somehow, the Court’s activist wing will have a majority when the case comes back up on appeal in a few years.

Incidentally, Wiggins is one of four justices up for retention this year and, with an eye towards November, guised his ruling in terms of judicial restraint.  Channeling his inner Obama, he argued several times that the majority was taking an unprecedented step to “achieve a desired result” and that “this important case calls for judicial restraint.”

No doubt a coincidence, but Wiggins, the only Varnum justice on November’s ballot, declined to (publicly) join Appel and Hecht in discovering a new constitutional right to education.  Election years, after all, are bad years for declaring unenumerated rights, especially those that will cost taxpayers billions of dollars at the whim of judges.

It is nice to see that the upcoming retention vote has tempered Wiggins’ jurisprudential fantasies, but no one should be fooled into thinking he has become any less activist.

 

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About the Author

Nathan W. Tucker
Nathan W. Tucker is a Davenport attorney and author of We The People: The Only Cure to Judicial Activism. He can be contacted at nathanwt@juno.com.




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