Tag: lawsuits

School Choice Lawsuits and Legislation Roundup

We’re only at hump day but this week has already seen the filing of a new anti-school choice lawsuit, the dismissal of another, the potential resolution of a third, and the adoption of a new school choice program. [UPDATE: Plus the passage of a second school choice program. See below.]

Alabama: Yesterday, a federal judge dismissed the Southern Poverty Law Center’s ridiculous lawsuit against Alabama’s scholarship tax credit program which essentially claimed that the program unconstitutionally violated the Equal Protection clause since it did not solve all the problems facing education in Alabama. The SPLC argued that the law creates two classes of citizens: those who can afford decent schooling and those who cannot. In fact, those classes already exist, but the law moves some students from the latter category into the former, as the judge wisely recognized:

“The requested remedy is arguably mean: Withdraw benefits from those students who can afford to escape non-failing schools. The only remedy requested thus far would leave the plaintiffs in exactly the same situation to which they are currently subject, but with the company of their better-situated classmates. The equal protection requested is, in effect, equally bad treatment,” the judge said.

The scholarship program still faces a lawsuit from Alabama’s teachers union.

Georgia: Anti-school choice activists filed a lawsuit against Georgia’s scholarship tax credit program, alleging that it violates the state constitution’s ban on granting public funds to religious institutions. The lawsuit is longer and more complicated than similar suits in other states, and portions requesting that the government enforce certain accountability measures (e.g. - making sure that only eligible students are receiving scholarships) may actually have merit. However, the central claim that a private individual’s money becomes the government’s even before reaching the tax collector’s hand has been forcefully rejected by the U.S. Supreme Court and other state supreme courts with similar constitutional language.

Kansas: In the best school choice news of the week, as a part of its school finance legislation, Kansas lawmakers included both a scholarship tax credit program for low-income students and a personal-use tax credit. The former would grant corporations tax credits worth 70% of their donations to scholarship organizations that aid students from families earning up to 185% of the federal poverty line. The program is capped at $10 million. The personal-use tax credit grants $1,000 per child in tax credits against the family’s property tax liability up to $2,500 in total for any family without any students attending a government school. [UPDATE: The personal-use tax credit was not adopted in the final committee of conference report.]

Louisiana: A federal judge has mostly sided with the U.S. Department of Justice in its lawsuit demanding that Louisiana fork over data about students participating in the state’s school voucher program, including their race and the racial breakdown of both the government schools they are leaving and the private schools they want to attend. The DOJ wanted that data so that it can challenge individual vouchers if a student’s departure would leave a district “too white” or “too black” (no word yet on whether the DOJ will challenge families whose decision to move out of the district has the exact same impact). However, the judge required the state to provide the data to the DOJ only 10 days before issuing vouchers rather than 45 days beforehand, as the DOJ had requested. A study sponsored by the state of Louisiana determined that the voucher program has had a positive impact on racial integration.

Lawsuits against scholarship tax credit programs in New Hampshire, North Carolina, and Oklahoma are still pending. Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina released the following video announcing their efforts to fight the lawsuit:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=YzEs1t6hDsA

UPDATE: 

Alaska: Last night, Alaska’s House of Representatives passed a scholarship tax credit program. The bill still has to go to the state senate and the governor.

School Choice Lawsuit Roundup

School choice advocates have been winning in the halls of state legislatures and in the court of public opinion, so opponents have taken to the courts of law. Since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris (2002) that school vouchers are consistent with the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause, opponents of choice have been scrambling to find novel reasons to challenge school choice programs. Here’s a brief summary of school choice lawsuits around the nation:

1) In Louisiana, the U.S. Department of Justice has sued to halt the state’s school voucher program, arguing that it hurts the desegregation effort. The DOJ’s already weak case was further undermined by a new study released today showing that school choice actually improves integration. Since 90 percent of the voucher recipients are black, the DOJ’s lawsuit would have the effect of keeping low-income blacks from attending the schools of their choice.

Earlier this year, Louisiana’s state supreme court ruled that the voucher program was unconstitutionally funded, but otherwise left the program intact. The governor and state legislators adjusted the funding mechanism in response.

2) Two days ago, a group of activists in Oklahoma sued the state over its special needs voucher program, arguing that it violates the state constitution’s ban on using public funds at religious schools. Last year, the state supreme court tossed out a challenge to the program by public school districts, ruling that they did not have standing since they are not taxpayers.

3) On the same day, the Arizona Court of Appeals ruled unanimously that the state’s education savings account program, the first in the nation, is constitutional. Anti-school choice activists had argued that it violates the state constitution’s ban on publicly funding religious schools. The court held that students are the primary beneficiaries and that any “aid to religious schools would be a result of the genuine and independent private choices of the parents.” The decision will likely be appealed to the state supreme court.

New York Times Covers ADA Shakedown Lawsuits

As the New York Times reports today, mass filing of accessibility lawsuits against Main Street businesses, long a cottage industry for Florida and California lawyers, has now reached Gotham in a big way:

A small cadre of lawyers, some from out of state, are using New York City’s age and architectural quirkiness as the foundation for a flood of lawsuits citing violations of the Americans With Disabilities Act.

The lawyers are generally not acting on existing complaints from people with disabilities. Instead, they identify local businesses, like bagel shops and delis, that are not in compliance with the law, and then aggressively recruit plaintiffs from advocacy groups for people with disabilities.

The cases then settle for a few thousand dollars in what are described as legal fees, as well as a payment (token or otherwise) to the named client, and a promise to relocate or replace the shelf or doorknob or paper towel dispenser whose ADA-noncompliant status was complained of in the suit.

I’ve been covering these shakedown operations for years, and some other New York press outlets have already gotten to the same case histories in livelier fashion, as with the New York Post, which last June reported on the same attorney (Bradley Weitz) and client (Zoltan Hirsch) who figure prominently in today’s Times report. (Best detail from the Post: “[Hirsch] targeted a pedicure station at the Red & White Spa in SoHo—even though he has no feet.”) Still, the Times adds some helpful details, such as that the number of similar suits nationwide has more than doubled in five years (to 3,000, “including more than 300 in New York”) and that New York’s pro-plaintiff city and state Human Rights Laws encourage things by allowing damages for complainants, thus raising the suits’ extraction value beyond the level of attorneys’ fees. (California has the worst ADA shakedown racket—to the point where liberal Democratic senator Dianne Feinstein recently threatened to intervene unless Sacramento does something to clean it up—because of the distinctively high damages available under its Unruh Act).

Inevitably, the Times also quotes advocates including a law professor, in this case Ruth Colker of Ohio State, defending the use of the law in this fashion. That Colker and other top ADA specialists in legal academia actually defend the law’s use as a shakedown mechanism—after all, doesn’t that deter violations?—is about as severe a judgment on the ideological state of legal academia as anything in Schools for Misrule.

Texas Court Rules For Eminent-Domain Critic

Good news from Texas, where a state appeals court has handed a major win to investigative journalist Carla Main, whose book Bulldozed: ‘Kelo,’ Eminent Domain, and the American Lust for Land took a critical look at the seizure of private land under eminent domain laws for purposes of urban redevelopment. Dallas developer H. Walker Royall didn’t like what Main wrote about his involvement in a Freeport, Texas marina project and proceeded to sue her, publisher Encounter Books (which I should note is also my own publisher on Schools for Misrule), and even liberty-minded law professor Richard Epstein over a dust jacket blurb Epstein had given for the book. (Earlier coverage of the suit here and here.)

A trial court had declined to dismiss Royall’s claims on summary judgment, but yesterday Judge Elizabeth Lang-Miers reversed in substantial part, ruling that Royall had failed to make the requisite showing that key passages in Bulldozed had in fact defamed him. The case is not yet over, but Institute for Justice senior attorney Dana Berliner, who argued for the defense, is understandably jubilant: “Walker Royall has failed in his attempt to use this frivolous defamation lawsuit as a weapon to silence his critics,” she said. Moreover, outrage at Royall’s suit contributed to Texas’s enactment this summer (joining 26 other states) of strong “anti-SLAPP” legislation aimed at curbing lawsuits intimidating speech. You can read the opinion here, and early coverage at Gideon Kanner’s blog, the Dallas Observer and D Magazine.

Supreme Court Should Uphold Incentives to Sue the Government

Private lawsuits challenging government violation of civil rights are notoriously difficult and expensive to bring and win. To address such impediments to the vindication of civil rights, Congress passed a law that, among other things, awards attorneys’ fees to the prevailing parties in certain cases. As noted by the House Judiciary Committee, this was necessary because “a vast majority of the victims of civil rights violations cannot afford legal counsel, they are unable to present their cases to the courts …. [the law at issue, 42 U.S.C. § 1988] is designed to give such persons effective access to the judicial process.” Congress thus harnessed market principles, creating an economic incentive for citizens to vindicate their civil rights directly rather than relying exclusively on enforcement actions by the federal government itself.

In the case of Fox v. Vice, however, the Fifth Circuit ruled that an unsuccessful result on a threshold or procedural matter relating to part of a lawsuit could justify a court order requiring the plaintiff to pay all of the defendants’ attorney’s fees — even those expended to address other, meritorious claims. Such a rule departs from the market-oriented legal structure Congress designed and, if allowed to stand, would significantly harm the ability of plaintiffs to bring private civil rights claims.

Cato, joining the Liberty Institute, the Independence Law Center, the Institute for Justice, and the James Madison Center for Free Speech, filed a brief supporting a request that the Supreme Court reverse the Fifth Circuit and making three points:

First, by awarding the defendant fees for the entire suit based on the dismissal of one claim, the Fifth Circuit’s decision imposes prohibitive costs on the enforcement of civil rights.

Second, the exceptional timing of the fee award in this case — before resolution of the plaintiff’s related state-law claims — creates a dangerous precedent that threatens to derail civil rights actions. By prematurely deeming a plaintiff’s suit frivolous and ordering the plaintiff to pay the defendant’s fees before the conclusion of the litigation, the Fifth Circuit’s rule imposes financial penalties that would shut down legitimate lawsuits midstream.

Third, the Court should not permit fee awards in situations where a plaintiff dismisses a federal claim in order to secure a remand of related state-law claims to state court. Otherwise, the threat of a fee award will improperly burden the plaintiff’s decision to bring a federal claim in state court at all — contrary to the law’s purpose here.

In addition to reversing the judgment below, the Court should reinforce that a mid-litigation fee award is improper when a plaintiff voluntarily drops a federal claim in order to return to state court.  The Court will hear Fox v. Vice on March 22, with a decision expected in June.

Frivolous Lawsuit Aimed at Silencing Critics of Eminent Domain Abuse

In Kelo v. City of New London, the Supreme Court ruled that a locality could use its eminent domain authority to seize private property to sell to private developers. Cato’s amicus brief opposing this abuse of the Takings Clause is available here, and an article on Kelo and other property law rulings of the 2004-2005 term by law professor James W. Ely, Jr. is available here.

One positive outcome of Kelo was the legislative restriction of eminent domain usage in state houses across the country. On the other hand, developers and localities have attempted to muzzle their critics with frivolous lawsuits. The Institute for Justice is currently litigating one of these actions in Texas:

Investigative journalist Carla Main wrote a book about eminent domain abuse in Freeport, Texas.  The city is attempting to force out a generations-old family shrimp and marine supply business to make way for a luxury marina development that was to be owned and operated by Royall’s private company.  When the victims of this eminent domain abuse complained, Royall sued them for defamation.  Main’s book, Bulldozed: “Kelo,” Eminent Domain, and the American Lust for Land, tells the story of the Gore family’s generations-old shrimp business and how Royall and the city tried to take their land.  Prominent law professor Richard Epstein (University of Chicago and New York University) contributed a blurb to the back cover of Bulldozed.

Royall sued Main, Epstein and Encounter Books (the publisher) for defamation over the contents of Bulldozed.  He also sued two newspapers and a journalist who published reviews of Bulldozed.  Royall is attempting to use the power of the courts to silence his critics.

A Dallas trial court ruled last year that the lawsuit was not barred by the First Amendment, even though Royall could not point to any statement in Main’s book that came close to the legal standard for defamation. The Institute for Justice is appealing the trial court’s decision. As Bill McGurn writes in today’s Wall Street Journal, this suit is one of the “high costs of Mr. Kennedy’s concurrence” in Kelo. Here’s hoping that rights protected by both the First and Fifth Amendments can prevail.

Susette Kelo, the owner of the Little Pink House at the center of the Kelo case, spoke at the Cato Institute about her ordeal, and her story is the subject of this Cato Institute video.

The Likelihood of Repealing ObamaCare

The political science blog Rule 22 has a post discussing the likelihood of repealing at least some part of ObamaCare.  Author Jordan Ragusa finds:

  • If “the Republicans regain only the House in the upcoming election…the estimated likelihood of at [least] some repeal during the 112th Congress is 52 percent.”
  • If “Republicans regain both chambers in the upcoming midterm…the estimated likelihood of at [least] some repeal is 59 percent.”
  • If “Republicans regain unified control of government in 2012…the estimated likelihood of some repeal in the 113th Congress is 69 percent.”

Ragusa is predicting only that the odds are better than 50-50 that Congress will repeal some part of the law, such as the expanded 1099 reporting, which House Democrats have already moved to eliminate because small businesses find it so onerous.  He is not laying odds on whether Congress will repeal the entire law or its most important and unpopular provisions (i.e., ObamaCare’s individual mandate).

His post does shed light on the likelihood of repealing the individual mandate, however.  As the below graph shows, the probability of repealing any provision of major legislation rises in each of the next five Congresses (i.e., over the subsequent 10 years).  After that point, the probability of repeal begins to fall.

Note that this graph shows the instantaneous probability of repeal.  The cumulative probability is the area under the curve, and increases monotonically over time.  Thus the probability that Congress will repeal some part of ObamaCare by 2020 is more than 13 percent.

Ragusa therefore concludes:

the newly enacted law will be most “at risk” not in the next Congress, but a decade from now.  So sit tight.

Also noteworthy is that Ragusa presents only the probability of legislative repeal.  The prospect that the courts may invalidate all or part of the law increases the probability that some day, ObamaCare will no longer be on the books.