“The System Is Broken”
The winter of 1983–84 was difficult for Marilyn Morheuser. True, by the time she paid her Christmas visit to her sister’s family in St. Louis, she had recovered from her mastectomy eleven months earlier—over the holidays, she seemed more angry than frightened when, in her matter-of-fact way, she showed her breast prosthesis to her oldest niece. But back home in Newark, a freak accident laid her up again: a coffeepot full of boiling water slipped out of her hand and spilled scalding liquid into the boot she was wearing, severely burning her leg. The doctor threatened hospitalization and skin grafts, but Morheuser dosed herself with megavitamins and slowly healed without those desperate measures.
Her school-funding case seemed in greater danger, however. Through the early months of 1984, Morheuser and her allies waited to hear if a higher court would reverse Judge Virginia Long’s decision sending Abbott v. Burke to administrative law court, a procedural matter as crucial as it was dryly technical. Administrative law judges, considered part of the executive branch, not the judiciary, usually handled comparatively straightforward disputes over how officials were enforcing the endless stream of regulations the Trenton bureaucracy spewed forth. Administrative hearings typically consisted of a few days’ testimony from a handful of witnesses, and, unlike superior court judges, administrative law judges had no authority to decide if state laws were constitutional. If the Abbott case were crammed into the administrative template, Morheuser and her allies feared, it could morph from a broadly applicable case about how the state was meeting its constitutional obligations to poor children—a class