Monday, June 22, 2009

The Supreme Court Today: Voting Rights, Special Education, the Environment

The Supreme Court handed down three decisions today.

Voting Rights: many predicted (too hastily I thought) that the Supreme Court would declare key provisions of the 1965 Voting Rights Act unconstitutional. Today, in Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District Number One v. Holder, the Court avoided the constitutional issue and instead ruled that the appellant Texas utility district fell within the words of the statute and is eligible for an exemption from voting oversight by the federal government.

In an opinion for eight members of the Court (Justice Thomas dissented), Chief Justice Roberts noted the "ardent briefs from dozens of interested parties" which addressed the constitutional claim, but concluded that "the importance of the question does not justify our rushing to decide it."

Section 2 of the Act prohibits any "standard, practice, or procedure" which "results in a denial or abridgment of the right of any citizen of the United States to vote on account of race or color." Section 5 of the Act suspends all changes in state election procedures until they are submitted to and approved by a three-judge Federal District Court in Washington, D.C. The Act incorporates two measures to prevent § 5 from casting too broad a net.

First, the Act initially applied only to states which had less than 50% voter registration or turnout in the 1964 Presidential election. Later amendments changed the baseline year to 1972. Second, the Act allows states and their political subdivisions to file a "bailout suit" in which they contend they should not be subject to § 5 because, inter alia, they have not been engaged in any forbidden voting practice for the previous ten years.

Section 5 was intended to be temporary, but Congress has repeatedly extended it, most recently in 2006 for 25 years. Because § 5 suspends all changes to state election law--however innocuous--until they have been precleared in Washington, the procedure raises constitutional questions of federalism because the discriminatory voting conditions of 1964 are not, in most instances, extant.

The Texas utility district brought a bailout suit and maintained it should be relieved of the requirements of § 5 because it did not engage in discriminatory voting practices. In the alternative, it maintained that § 5 is unconstitutional. The three-judge district court concluded that the bailout provision did not apply to the utility district because, while it held elections, it did not register the voters. The district court also upheld the constitutionality of § 5.

Avoiding the constitutional question, the Supreme Court overruled the district court and held that the utility district is, under the Act, a political subdivision which can be eligible for a bailout from the § 5 provisions. The case was remanded to the district court to now determine whether the utility district has established facts which entitle it to a bailout.

This plainly will not foreclose further challenges to the constitutionality of § 5. The intense interest in the case by state and local election officials across the country, and the "ardent briefs from dozens of interested parties," assure continued litigation.

Special Education: the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), 20 U.S.C. § 1400 et seq., requires that a State receiving federal funding make a "free appropriate public education" (FAPE) available to all children with disabilities who reside in the State.

After public high school officials determined that a student was not in need of special education services, his parents had him tested by a private specialist who diagnosed him with a number of disorders relating to learning and memory. After the specialist advised that the student would do best in a structured, residential learning environment, his parents enrolled him at a private academy which focuses on educating children with special needs. The question before the Supreme Court was whether under IDEA parents are entitled to state reimbursement for private special education services if the child has not previously received those services from a public school.

In a case watched with keen interest by public school boards across the country, a divided Supreme Court ruled today in Forest Grove School District v. T.A., that IDEA authorizes state reimbursement to parents for the cost of private special-education services when the public school fails to provide a FAPE, although the child has not previously received special education services from a public school. The case turned on the meaning of a 1997 amendment to IDEA. Justice Souter's dissent was joined by Justices Scalia and Thomas.

Environment: in Coeur Alaska, Inc. v. Southeast Alaska Conservation Council, a divided Court ruled that under the Clean Water Act the United States Army Corps of Engineers, and not the Environmental Protection Agency, has the authority to issue a permit for the discharge of mineral waste into a lake in Alaska.

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