Tag: court decision

New Hampshire Court’s School Choice Decision Was Flawed and Unprecedented

Last week, a New Hampshire trial court declared that the state’s nascent scholarship tax credit (STC) program could not fund students attending religious schools. The Granite State’s STC program grants tax credits to corporations worth 85 percent of their contributions to nonprofit scholarship organizations that aid low- and middle-income students attending the schools of their choice.

Writing on the Washington Post’s Answer Sheet blog, Professor Kevin Welner of the University of Colorado at Boulder mocked supporters of the program who criticized the decision. Welner argues that school choice advocates should have expected this decision, declaring that it was “unsurprising” that the court should find the program (partially) unconstitutional. But what Welner calls unsurprising is actually unprecedented.

Only toward the bottom of his post does Welner reveal that the only high courts to address the issue thus far—the U.S. Supreme Court and the Arizona supreme court—have ruled STC programs constitutional in their entirety. Indeed, though all but two of the remaining ten states with STC programs have similar “Blaine Amendment” provisions in their state constitutions, opponents haven’t even bothered to challenge their constitutionality. Additionally, other state courts have ruled on the question of whether tax credits constitute “public money” in a manner consistent with the previous STC cases, demonstrating that the courts’ rulings were not the aberrations that Welner imagines them to be.

If school choice supporters had a reason not to be surprised, it was because the ACLU and Americans United for Separation of Church and State shrewdly went judge shopping. That’s why they brought their lawsuit in Strafford County instead of Merrimack County, where the state capital is located. Their strategy seemed to pay off, as the judge’s decision relies heavily on the dissenting opinions in the U.S. Supreme Court and Arizona supreme court decisions, and misapplies the limited precedent from New Hampshire. Nevertheless, the final decision rests with the New Hampshire supreme court. As I detail below, logic and precedent suggest that they should overturn the lower court’s decision.

NH Court: You Can Choose a School So Long as It’s Secular

Earlier today, a New Hampshire district court upheld the “Live Free or Die” state’s nascent scholarship tax credit (STC) program, but limited the use of scholarships to non-religious private schools.

Earlier this year, the ACLU and Americans United for the Separation of Church and State filed a lawsuit claiming that New Hampshire’s school choice law was unconstitutional under the state’s Blaine Amendment, which prohibits the public funding of religious schools. The law grants tax credits to corporations in return for contributions to non-profit scholarship organizations that fund low-and-middle-income students attending the schools of their choice.

The decision hinged on whether or not tax credits constitute “public money.” Previously, the U.S. Supreme Court held that they do not, noting that when “taxpayers choose to contribute to [scholarship organizaions], they spend their own money, not money the State has collected from respondents or from other taxpayers.”

Likewise, the Arizona state supreme court upheld the constitutionality of Arizona’s STC program, forcefully rejecting the “public money” argument:

According to Black’s Law Dictionary, “public money” is “[r]evenue received from federal, state, and local governments from taxes, fees, fines, etc.” Black’s Law Dictionary 1005 (6th ed.1990). As respondents note, however, no money ever enters the state’s control as a result of this tax credit. Nothing is deposited in the state treasury or other accounts under the management or possession of governmental agencies or public officials. Thus, under any common understanding of the words, we are not here dealing with “public money.”

While neither the Arizona supreme court nor U.S. Supreme Court serve as binding precedent for how a New Hampshire court may interpret the New Hampshire state constitution, their reasoning should have carried great weight as the question before the court was the same. Nevertheless, the NH trial court rejected this traditional understanding of “public money” in favor of the plaintiff’s “all your money are belong to us” argument. In the words of the trial court judge:

This Court concludes that the program uses “public funds,” or “money raised by taxation” … Money that would otherwise be flowing to the government is diverted for the very specific purpose of providing scholarships to students.

This is precisely the understanding of “public money” that the U.S. Supreme Court rejected: 

Respondents’ contrary position assumes that income should be treated as if it were government property even if it has not come into the tax collector’s hands. Private bank accounts cannot be equated with the … State Treasury.

The U.S. Supreme Court held, in essence, that your money is your own whether or not it qualifies for a tax deduction of some kind. A taxpayer’s money only becomes “public money” once the government actually collects it in the form of taxes. The NH trial court judge, by contrast, holds that any taxpayer’s income on which the government might have a claim is instantly “public money,” even before collection, and it remains so even if the existence of a tax credit or deduction means that government will never collect it.

Unfortunately, the legal theater of the absurd doesn’t end there. Charlie Arlinghaus, President of the Josiah Bartlett Center, which advised legislators on crafting the law, noted that the trial court’s logic leads to another absurd conclusion:

This ruling is particularly odd. The entire program is fine unless a parent by their own choice chooses a religious school. By this logic a program is illegal if neutral and only legal if actively hostile to religion. 

The Institute for Justice, which intervened on behalf of the Network for Education, the state’s first scholarship organization, will be appealing the decision to the state supreme court. IJ Senior Attorney Richard D. Komer stated:

The court’s ruling inflicts again the blatant discrimination that motivated New Hampshire’s bigoted Blaine Amendment in the first place.  We will immediately seek a stay of the court’s decision so that parents receiving scholarships can choose the educational options that best suit their child’s unique educational needs, regardless of whether that is a religious or secular school.

The trial court’s order halting the program is wrong on both the facts and the law. As a factual matter, the program is funded with private, not public dollars.  As a legal matter, the federal Constitution prohibits states from preferring non-religious schools over religious schools, which is precisely what the court’s ruling does.

We can only hope that the Granite State’s supreme court will exercise better judgment.

Individualism in Legal Process and the Wal-Mart Case

Monday’s high court decision in Wal-Mart v. Dukes has predictably drawn a strong reaction from legal academia, much of it critical of the Court. Of particular interest are the comments of Richard Primus (Michigan) at the New York Times’s “Room for Debate” and Alexandra Lahav (Connecticut) at Mass Tort Litigation Blog. According to Primus and Lahav, the decision is the latest sign that the current Supreme Court leans toward a principle of “individualism” in applying the rules of civil litigation. Lahav in particular appears to view this as a shame, since “a more collectivist view” would carry with it more “potential for social reform.”

What does a term like “individualism” mean in the context of litigation procedure? One of its implications is that legal rights to redress on the one hand, and legal responsibility or culpability on the other, are ordinarily things that appertain to individual litigants, and ought not (absent clear authorization by statute or Constitution) be submerged into group claims on the one hand or group guilt on the other. In particular, we should be wary of proposals to deprive litigants of the choice to obtain individualized consideration of their claims or defenses on the grounds that society can accomplish more if it processes litigation in batches while accepting, say, statistical as distinct from personalized proofs.

Lahav and other scholars such as Samuel Issacharoff offer as examples numerous cases in which the Court has insisted on individualized process, often thereby frustrating the advocates of social reform in one or another area. The Court’s scruples on this matter have run into much adverse comment in the academic literature, and that’s hardly a surprise; as I argue in my book Schools for Misrule, today’s legal academy is far more keen on things like group rights and social engineering (as some of us might call it) than is the wider society.

Let me offer a few observations in defense or at least explanation of the Court’s approach:

1) The individualist leaning is by no means confined to the “conservative” justices; all nine members of the current Court partake of it to varying extents, and it is one major reason why the Court’s liberal justices joined in to make the Wal-Mart decision unanimous on one of its most practically significant issues, relating to the handling of claims for back pay.

2) Like so many other aspects of the Court’s work, this one does not fit well into simplistic accounts from some quarters about the Court’s supposed “pro-business” stance. In many circumstances business defendants actually prefer some degree of collectivization of claims, because their main practical concern is to put an end to litigation, and group resolution can do that. In the Court’s landmark 1997 Amchem Products v. Windsor decision, six of eight voting justices (Breyer and Stevens dissenting in part) struck down a giant batch settlement of asbestos litigation that had been ardently pursued by many of the nation’s biggest businesses, as well as many plaintiff advocates, on the grounds that it improperly denied claimants their right to individualized justice.

3) If the question is one of faithfulness to the constitutional vision of law held by the Founders, there really isn’t much of a question: like other Anglo-Americans of Blackstone’s era those Founders saw the courts as dispensers of individualized justice if they were to be anything at all. Much else in American law has changed beyond recognition in the intervening two-plus centuries. Fortunately, as the result in Wal-Mart v. Dukes suggests, that hasn’t.

For more commentary on the Wal-Mart case, check out (e.g.) editorials at the Washington Post, New York Daily News and Omaha World Herald (favoring the court’s view), and the <a href=”New York Times and USA Today (opposing), as well as my contributions in the Philadelphia Inquirer and at Overlawyered.