School Finance Reform Litigation: Why Are Some State Supreme Courts Activist and Others Restrained?

By Swenson, Karen | Albany Law Review, Summer 2000 | Go to article overview
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School Finance Reform Litigation: Why Are Some State Supreme Courts Activist and Others Restrained?

Swenson, Karen, Albany Law Review


Former Justice William Brennan provided an important impetus for state supreme court judicial activism when he urged state courts to "`step into the breach'" left by the Supreme Court's turn away from the liberal activism of the Warren Court.(1) Perhaps as a result, today state courts are increasingly offering more protection than the Federal Constitution to individual rights by interpreting provisions of their state constitutions more liberally.(2)

An important example of an area where state courts are liberally interpreting state constitutions is public school finance. The traditional method of funding public school systems in the United States is through local property tax.(3) Local property tax-based finance schemes result in some school districts collecting substantially more tax dollars than others depending on the taxable wealth available in the district, regardless of the tax rate imposed.(4) Property-wealthy districts then spend considerably more per pupil, and the poorest districts do not have the funds to provide the quality of educational experience that many concerned citizens and public officials would consider minimally adequate.(5)

The Supreme Court held in 1973 in the case of San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez(6) that this kind of wealth-based disparity does not offend the equal protection guarantee of the Federal Constitution.(7) Rodriguez thus invited reform to be conceived at the state level.(8)

All fifty state constitutions contain provisions guaranteeing a right to free public education.(9) Seventeen state courts of last resort have relied on their respective provision (and/or the state constitution's equal protection clause) to invalidate local property tax-based funding systems.(10) These courts purport to be persuaded by evidence showing great inequality of funding between the state's school districts and demonstrating that the state's poorest school districts fail to meet minimum measures of quality.(11) Twenty-six state high courts, however, have upheld a state school funding system.(12) Their reasoning has varied, but typically includes notions that school finance policy is best left to state, legislatures or to local prerogative.(13)

One precept of federalism is that state supreme courts are the highest authority in interpreting their state's law.(14) Because the aforementioned state court decisions are interpretations of state law rather than federal law, the Supreme Court does not have jurisdiction to review them on appeal. This results in a devolution of enormous policy-making authority to state supreme courts in the area of education finance. Thus, the state high court decision-making process in this area is particularly worthy of study by political scientists.

What causes state supreme courts to come down on different sides of this politically volatile issue? Striking down a statewide system of public school finance is a quintessential example of judicial activism--the least accountable branch of state government overrules the highly visible public policies set by state and local legislative bodies, and uses relatively novel legal precedent.(15) A state supreme court is not constrained to follow the precedent of its sister state courts, and the Supreme Court is not empowered to rule on the meaning of state constitutions.(16) Thus, a state supreme court has great latitude but limited guidance on the school finance issue and could credibly rule either way in a school finance lawsuit. Is there any explanation why some courts will accept the challenge presented to it by plaintiffs and others will not?

Discovering a set of principles that unify school finance court decisions, or a set of meaningful variables that can predict the outcome of these cases could add some insight into judicial policymaking in this area so fertile for judicial input. Literature from the political science discipline of judicial politics, as well as traditional legal scholarship suggests several variables that could demonstrate that the different case outcomes may be due to forces other than random variance.

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School Finance Reform Litigation: Why Are Some State Supreme Courts Activist and Others Restrained?


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