Thursday, March 03, 2005

Who decides?

Recently I asked an education official I know who used to work in Texas Lieutenant Governor Bob Bullock's office if anyone in that office ever considered asking the Supreme Court for clarification on their various rulings (Edgewood I, II, and III) that the school finance system was unconstitutional. He looked at me as if I had asked him if he had ever kissed his sister: that's just not done, he seemed to say.

So this story struck me as odd:

GOP leader asks Supreme Court for final school funding decision

Associated Press

HELENA -- In an unusual move, Senate Minority Leader Bob Keenan paid a visit to the state Supreme Court offices Wednesday to ask in person the question on the minds of nearly every lawmaker: When will the Supreme Court explain its reasons behind declaring the state's school funding system unconstitutional?

Lawmakers have been waiting for months for more guidance from the court on its preliminary order last fall. The three-page order said only that the current system was illegal and inadequate. The justices, citing their heavy workload, said they would issue a full opinion at a later date to explain further.

Keenan, R-Bigfork, delivered Chief Justice Karla Gray a letter Wednesday afternoon asking for more information "as quickly as possible" in order for lawmakers to develop a new funding system before the court's deadline this October.

"We're being put into a position where we're going to be making decisions in the next 45 days and the Supreme Court is going to be playing the doubting Thomas," Keenan said. "They need to back up their decision with some parameters."

This meeting today between the Chief Justice and the Senate Leader is symbolic of the confusion reigning in nearly every state as to whose job it is to define exactly what an adequate and equitable school finance system is. The legislative branch determines spending; one of their chief jobs is to tax and spend. But the judicial branch is supposed to interpret the Constitution and most state constitutions call for some measure of adequacy and equity (though each does so in its own quirky way).

So who should decide? Should, in the case above, the Court give parameters or merely wait for the Legislature to adopt a budget and then rule on its constitutionality?

Update: Here's a similar case from Alabama:

Supreme Court won't answer House query on amendment

(AP) — WHAT'S NEW: The Alabama Supreme Court has refused to answer a question from the Alabama House over whether a defeated amendment to remove racist 1956 language from the state contitution could have caused judges to order tax increases to improve education.

WHY: The court said it has restricted such advisory opinions to questions on the constitutionality of proposed legislation and this query would require "a speculative opinion."

Update 2: And if you didn't believe me that this confusion is really widespread, here's yet another example from Arkansas:

Yes, the Supreme Court gave its stamp of approval to what the state legislature did in the 2004 special session to make the state’s public school system adequate and equitable. But it was nowhere near a unanimous decision — the vote was 4-3 — and even those of the majority opinion wrote that they still had some reservations about how close to the mark the legislature had gotten.


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