Academic journal article Columbia Journal of Law and Social Problems

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

Academic journal article Columbia Journal of Law and Social Problems

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

Article excerpt

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. …

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