Friday, July 14, 2017

Commissioner Cassellius Throws Sand in the Face of the Courts to Win the Cruz-Guzman Litigation

We've been posting on the topic of what is an adequate education in Minnesota because that question has, surprisingly, become a  central feature of two Minnesota litigations winding their way through our state court system.   In the Cruz-Guzman case, the plaintiffs alleged (as their brief in the Court of Appeals states:
  [The Cruz-Guzman] Complaint alleges five causes of action: [The first two are] (1) [Their school districts] deprived Plaintiffs of their constitutional right by failing to provide an adequate education to students of the Minneapolis and Saint Paul public schools, and Defendants are therefore liable regardless of whether they caused or contributed to this deprivation; (2) Appellants violated Plaintiffs right to an adequate education because Defendants in fact caused Plaintiffs to receive an education in Minneapolis and Saint Paul public schools that is inadequate because it is segregated and inadequate by any other objective standard....

    The Cruz-Guzman Complaint had thus two major components:  (1) the allegation that a significant number of students in the Minneapolis and St. Paul schools do not receive an adequate education, and (2) that a contributing factor  causing their education to be inadequate is that the public school systems are segregated.  

Two of the major defendants in this litigation are the Governor and Commissioner of Education and this post suggests that they adopted an ill considered strategy, one that convinced the Court of Appeals wrongly to undermine the constitutional protection of education in our constitution.  

Let me start by pointing out that this the allegation that segregated education causes students to receive a poor education is highly controversial.   There are factual arguments on both sides.  Probably, had the Court of Appeals allowed them to proceed to trial, there is a significant probability that the courts would have found that judicially forcing integration of the metro area schools would not have solve the very real problem, that a significant portion of our students are failing to receive an adequate education.  However, it is important to understand that generally, when plaintiffs allege something in their complaint that is factually controversial, our justice system gives them a right to a full dress trial, provided that they can provide some competent evidence supporting their claim.  

    Instead of winning the case at trial on the merits, the Governor and Commissioner, (and their attorney, the Attorney General), decided that they would choose a strategy that might convince the courts to dismiss the case without going through a lengthy and costly trial, and really nobody can blame defendants or their lawyers for wanting to do that.   But unfortunately  they chose to defend this litigation with a rather remarkable, and for Minnesota, quite unfortunate,  approach.     They decided to throw sand in the face of the Court system by wrongly claiming that the Cruz-Guzman plaintiffs were asking the Courts to invade a legislative function and decide what is an adequate education in Minnesota.    

It's going to take me a few posts to explain why this strategy represented a clever, but unfortunate, legal evasion, which surprisingly resulted in a victory for the State in the Court of Appeals.  But that victory now threatens grave injury to one of the most important civil rights in the Minnesota Constitution, the right to a general, uniform, thorough and efficient system of public education.  I'll explain why in the coming posts.

Spoiler Alert--How Did the State Throw Sand in the face of the Court System

Let me provide a simplifying spoiler summary of the argument that we will make in the coming posts.  
  • In the time period 1989-1993, several groundbreaking "adequacy" cases were decided on State educational Clauses:  for example in Kentucky, the famous Rose case, and in Minnesota, the Skeen case.  
  • In the 1989  Rose case, plaintiffs alleged that the Kentucky education system was grossly inadequate, in its funding, and in its educational results. The Kentucky Supreme Court found that: "To comply with constitutional requirement that General Assembly provide efficient system of common schools throughout state, system of common schools must be adequately funded to achieve its goals and substantially uniform throughout state, so that every child in state is provided with equal opportunity to have adequate education."  
  •  In the Skeen case, a group of non metro school districts, serving primarily white students, told the Court that the students they served were actually already receiving an adequate education under Minnesota law, but then argued that the system of taxation and school financing violated the constitutional education clause by requiring non-urban districts to levy higher property taxes than urban districts to achieve their missions. The Supreme Court found that "the Education Clause not only contains language such as “shall” but in fact places a “duty” on the legislature to establish a “general and uniform system” of public schools. .....we hold that education is a fundamental right under the state constitution, not only because of its overall importance to the state but also because of the explicit language used to describe this constitutional mandate. While a fundamental right cannot be found “[a]bsent constitutional mandate,” the Education Clause is a mandate, not simply a grant of power.  Skeen v. State, 505 N.W.2d 299, 313 (Minn. 1993).  
  • In 1993, when Skeen was decided, Minnesota had a minimal state adequacy requirement that even the least demanding and poorly delivered education program could satisfy.  During this time period, a number of state Supreme Courts in other states began to force their state legislatures to fund judicially-established adequacy requirements.   An important example is the series of New Jersey Abbott decisions in which  the New Jersey courts determined that the adequacy of education provided by a school district could not be judged solely by students’ performance on basic skills tests and that a “thorough and efficient” education included not only the ability to fulfill one’s role as a citizen, but to participate fully in society, in the life of one’s community, to appreciate music, art and literature.  This question, of whether the Courts should have any role in defining the constitutionally required adequate education, became an important topic for debate in the legal communities interested in education.  Conservative scholars began to argue that the definition of the state required adequate education ought to be entirely a matter for the legislature.   
  • However, since 1993, the Minnesota legislature and the Department of Education radically increased the requirements for local school districts so that today, the definition of an adequate education is robust and  rigorous.   (That's been the subject of our past four posts:  to explain how statutes and administrative rules now leave little doubt on what a Minnesota adequate education is.) 
Now we are ready to explain how the Commissioner and her advocates threw sand in the face of the judiciary.    As it happens, they implied  (incorrectly) that the Cruz-Guzman plaintiffs were trying to bring an Abbott type suit-- that is, to invade the province of the legislature and seek a judicial definition of an adequate education.

That contention--especially to more conservative judges--raised the specter of a judicial takeover of the legislative function, and perhaps even indirect long term management of the entire education system.  The argument was a red herring, a form of legal trickery, but it took hold in the Court of Appeals.     In fact, the Cruz-Guzman plaintiffs were not bringing an Abbott suit at all:  they were making a much narrower argument.  They didn't need the Court to define an adequate education:  the legislature had already accomplished that objective through comprehensive legislation, as we have shown in prior posts.    The standards for a Minnesota adequate education are robust, rigorous and demanding--nothing at all like the minimal standards that existed when Skeen was decided.

Instead, Cruz-Guzman were arguing to the court that the system of education as structured in Minneapolis and St. Paul was failing to provide the adequate education that the legislature had already decided must be provided to all students.   We argue that the Commissioner and her co-defendants made an argument that as stewards of our public education system they should never have made:  in order to win a temporary victory, they proposed to undermine the very Constitutional protections found in our constitution.   I'll have a whole lot more to say about this in the coming posts.  

Past Posts on Education and the Constitution
McCleary v. State, Part I   McCleary v State Requires Legislature to Base Funding on Actual Cost
Jvonkorff on Education McCleary v. State, Part II
McCleary v State and Determining the Cost of Education
Jvonkorff on Education McCleary v. State, Part III
 McCleary v. State: what level of scrutiny is appropriate for legislative funding decisions
Jvonkorff on Education McCleary v. State, Part IV
Correlating the cost of education: fund the child.
Jvonkorff on Education  McCleary V. State Part V
Summary of Decision Network for Excellence
Washington Supreme Court Blog  
JvonKorff on Education, The Rose Decision 
Minnesota's School Finance System is Unconstitutional, Part I
Minnesota's School Finance System is Unconstitutional, Part II
Minnesota's School Finance System is Unconstitutional, Part III
Minnesota's School Finance System is Unconstitutional, Part IV

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