Closing the Door on Positive Rights: State Court Use of the Political Question Doctrine to Deny Access to Educational Adequacy Claims

By O'Neill, Christine M. | Columbia Journal of Law and Social Problems, Summer 2009 | Go to article overview
Save to active project

Closing the Door on Positive Rights: State Court Use of the Political Question Doctrine to Deny Access to Educational Adequacy Claims

O'Neill, Christine M., Columbia Journal of Law and Social Problems

The United States system of funding schools with local property tax dollars leads to qualitative disparities across school districts. It is crucial that state courts address this problem, since no federal right to education exists. Students and parents have successfully challenged these funding systems in many states, but courts in seven states - citing the political question doctrine - have refused to review these claims. It appears that most of these states lack a coherent political question history and have used the prudential standing doctrine to avoid education claims specifically. This Note argues that the political question doctrine should not be used as an excuse to ignore educational adequacy cases in states with an affirmative constitutional right to education.


Beginning with San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez,1 plaintiffs concerned with educational equity have gradually lost access to the federal court system over the past thirty-five years. In response, education plaintiffs have taken their claims to state court. The first wave of state cases aimed to achieve equal education for all, but over time advocates have shifted to claims for a minimum baseline of educational adequacy.2 State court plaintiffs have framed their arguments on state constitution education clauses, which grant all students a positive right to education and often articulate more specifically what that right requires. In the states where the highest courts have considered educational adequacy claims on the merits, plaintiffs have won every single time.3

Some state judges, however, have recently refused to address the difficult business of school reform. These courts have ruled that education funding issues belong with the legislature and will not consider adequacy claims on their merits. For those who view the judiciary as the protector of minority rights, closing the door to state litigation is troubling. With education claims out of federal court for the foreseeable future, litigants must find ways back into these state courtrooms. Judges in seven states rely on the rarely invoked federal political question doctrine, explained in Baker v. Carr,4 to reject education claims.5 In that 1962 case, the Supreme Court set out six possible criteria explaining what would limit courts from hearing claims that belong with another political branch.6

This Note investigates why state courts have suddenly resurrected this fifty-year -old Supreme Court doctrine and applied it to educational adequacy claims. On what authority do these courts base their decisions to refuse to consider educational adequacy claims? Do these states have coherent political question doctrines, where courts routinely examine the justiciability of claims before reviewing them? If these states use the political question doctrine widely, consistency may imply some legitimacy to the practice. But if the decisions are targeted only at education, what does that mean for the use of the political question doctrine at the state level? Determining the reasons behind these decisions will reveal ways to challenge them with future litigation.

Part II provides a brief history of recent education reform litigation in the United States, explaining the shift from the federal to the state system. It details the move from equity to adequacy litigation and what this shift means for the role of the courts. It also briefly explains the federal history of the political question doctrine. Part III details new research of the legal history of the seven states that have ruled education finance claims political questions: Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Nebraska, Florida, Alabama, Illinois, and Rhode Island. It examines how and when the courts in these states have used the political question doctrine in the past, and whether the application of the doctrine in the education context is far from the ordinary. Most of the states rely on one specific criterion of Baker v.

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
Loading One moment ...
Project items
Cite this article

Cited article

Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited article

Closing the Door on Positive Rights: State Court Use of the Political Question Doctrine to Deny Access to Educational Adequacy Claims


Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

While we understand printed pages are helpful to our users, this limitation is necessary to help protect our publishers' copyrighted material and prevent its unlawful distribution. We are sorry for any inconvenience.
Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.

Are you sure you want to delete this highlight?