State Supreme Court: Desegregation is justiciable

Court rules adequate education a fundamental right; segregated system is not adequate

By Barbara L. Jones
BridgeTower Media Newswires
MINNEAPOLIS — Proponents of lawsuits to desegregate schools likely will look at July 25 as a turning point in their favor in Minnesota, for that was when the state Supreme Court revived Cruz-Guzman et al. v. State of Minnesota et al. The court said that the lawsuit alleging violations of the Minnesota Constitution’s Education, Due Process and Equal Protection clauses raised justiciable claims, reversing the Court of Appeals’ dismissal of the case.

An adequate education is a fundamental right guaranteed by the state constitution and a segregated school system is not adequate, said the court in a 4-2 opinion drafted by Justice Natalie Hudson.
Justice G. Barry Anderson dissented, joined by Chief Justice Lorie Gildea. Newly appointed Justice Paul Thissen did not participate in the opinion, which has been pending since March of 2017.

The court strongly embraced its role as a constitutional watchdog. “We will not shy away from our proper role to provide remedies for violations of fundamental rights merely because education is a complex area. The judiciary is well equipped to assess whether constitutional requirements have been met and whether appellants’ fundamental right to an adequate education has been violated.
Although the Legislature plays a crucial role in education, it is ultimately the judiciary’s responsibility to determine what our constitution requires and whether the Legislature has fulfilled its constitutional duty,” Hudson wrote for the majority.

Importantly, the case stands for the power of the state constitution, said John Gordon, director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota, which appeared as amicus curiae. “We have a state constitution that has been interpreted to provide more rights than the federal constitution as does nearly every state. These clauses are frequently challenged as nonjusticiable. This was a very strong assertion that the court is in the business of determining what the law is and what people’s rights are. It is not by coincidence that the court quoted Marbury v. Madison. This is that kind of decision.”

Minneapolis attorney Daniel Shulman, who represented the plaintiffs/appellants, mostly parents of minor children, agreed that the case illustrated the importance of the state constitution. “It’s huge for Minnesota and every state that has a constitution like ours and that’s most of them.”

“I’m thrilled, I’m gratified, I’m overcome,” Shulman said, who represented the plaintiffs/appellants, mostly parents of minor children. “I’ve been practicing law for 48 years and this is the most important and rewarding case I’ve done. This is so important in so many ways to so many people.”

The state is reviewing the decision, said communications director Josh Collins in an email. “The Minnesota Department of Education will continue to prioritize equity as a pillar of our work, and we are committed to ensuring that each student achieves their fullest potential. Our commitment to equity was central to our stakeholder engagement during the creation of our state plan under the Every Student Succeeds Act, and will guide our implementation as we continue to address barriers and increase opportunities for all students,” Collins wrote.


Separate and unequal

In the complaint, the appellants described racially and socioeconomically segregated schools as “separate and unequal” from neighboring and surrounding “whiter and more affluent suburban schools” and detailed the harms of such segregation.

The complaint cites practices by the school districts, charter schools and the state including boundary decisions for school districts and school attendance areas; the formation of segregated charter schools and the decision to exempt charter schools from desegregation plans; the use of federal and state desegregation funds for other purposes; the failure to implement effective desegregation remedies; and the inequitable allocation of resources.

As a remedy for the constitutional violations the complaint requests the District Court to permanently enjoin the state from “continuing to engage in the violations of law,” to order the state to “remedy the violations of law,” and to order the state “to provide the [students] forthwith with an adequate and desegregated education.”

Appellants did not bring any direct claims against either the Minneapolis Public Schools or the Saint Paul Public Schools, and do not directly seek any remedies from any school district or charter school.
The state filed an interlocutory appeal when the District Court refused to dismiss the case in its entirety. The Court of Appeals reversed, holding that the complaint presented a nonjusticiable political question.

Education Clause

Article XIII, Sec. 1 of the Minnesota Constitution creates a legislative duty to establish a general and uniform system of public schools, and provide a thorough and efficient system of public schools throughout the state.

Although specific determinations of educational policy are matters for the Legislature, the judiciary may adjudicate whether the Legislature has met its duty, the court said. “Deciding that appellants’ claims are not justiciable would effectively hold that the judiciary cannot rule on the Legislature’s noncompliance with a constitutional mandate, which would leave Education Clause claims without a remedy,” Hudson wrote.

The court need not create educational policy, Hudson continued, but “It is well within the province of the judiciary to adjudicate claims of constitutional violations.” Case law establishes that the court has repeatedly decided whether the Legislature has satisfied its Education Clause obligation, the court continued.


‘Self-evident’ violations

The court moved next to Article I, Secs. 2 and 7 which address equal protection and due process. Claims based on racial segregation are indisputably justiciable, the court said, notwithstanding the dissents’ argument that the claims are not “traditional” segregation claims.

In the important footnote 6, the court said, “It is self-evident that a segregated system of public schools is not ‘general,’ ‘uniform,’ ‘thorough,’ or ‘efficient.’ Minn. Const. art. XIII, § 1. Regardless of whether the context is a ‘traditional’ segregation claim or a different type of claim, courts are well equipped to decide whether a school system is segregated, and have made such determinations since [Brown v Board of Education].”

The importance of this note cannot be overstated, said Myron Orfield, law professor and director of the University of Minnesota Institute on Metropolitan Opportunity School. He submitted an amicus brief in his own name.

The note says that there is no way a segregated system is constitutional, Orfield said. “I’ve never seen a statement like this by any other court. It strongly implies there is no need to prove intent,” he said. It likely will inform the trial court on remand, he said, and may have national influence.

The note implies that plaintiffs have a lower evidentiary burden because the fact that segregation violates the education clause is presumed, explains a post on the institute’s web site. It also implies that plaintiffs do not have to prove that segregation is intentional, the web site states.

The court also responded to the appellants’ allegation that they are denied their fundamental right to an adequate education, recognized by the court in 1993 in Skeen v. State. “The fundamental right recognized in Skeen was not merely a right to anything that might be labeled as ‘education,’ but rather, a right to a general and uniform system of education that is thorough and efficient, that is supported by sufficient and uniform funding, and that provides an adequate education to all students in Minnesota,” Hudson wrote.

The court rejected the dissent’s argument that the term “adequate education” does not appear in the constitution. “The framers could not have intended for the Legislature to create a system of schools that was ‘general and uniform’ and ‘thorough and efficient’ but that produced a wholly inadequate education,” the court said.

Some level of qualitative assessment is necessary to determine whether the state is meeting its obligation to provide an adequate education, the court continued. “We cannot fulfill our duty to adjudicate claims of constitutional violations by unquestioningly accepting that whatever the Legislature has chosen to do fulfills the Legislature’s duty to provide an adequate education. If the Legislature’s actions do not meet a baseline level, they will not provide an adequate education,” Hudson wrote.


A political question

Anderson, dissenting, also cited Marbury but said its reach is limited.

The dissent wrote, “Undeniably, the complaint paints a disturbing picture of some segregated and underperforming schools in and around the Twin Cities. Although it is true that the Judicial Branch must “say what the law is,” Marbury, 5 U.S. (1 Cranch) at 177, it is also true that “[q]uestions, in their nature political, . . . can never be made in this court,” id. at 170. I do not question that Minnesota’s children are the intended beneficiaries of the command we find in the Education Clause, and that the failings that appellants identify are more than troubling. But the plain language of that clause commits these issues to the Legislature and renders them unsuitable for judicial decision.”


Segregation has accelerated

Daniel Shulman, appellants’ attorney in Cruz-Guzman v. State of Minnesota, also represented the NAACP when it sued the state over school segregation about 20 years ago. Shulman has previously said that Cruz-Gruzman is the son of the NAACP case and that segregation has become worse since NAACP.

He repeated that sentiment to Minnesota Lawyer after the July 25 opinion in Cruz-Guzman. What has become known as the 1999 desegregation rule took the teeth out of desegregation efforts, Shulman said. Political backlash resulted in a narrowed definition of segregation restricted to intentional de jure discrimination and raised the standard for proving intentional discrimination far above that required by the U.S. Supreme Court, wrote former legislator and law professor Myron Orfield in an amicus brief. It also exempted charter schools from desegregation provisions.

Since that rule was enacted, the rate of segregation in schools has accelerated, Orfield wrote. “At present, school desegregation in Minnesota is governed by a 1999 rule founded in fundamental legal errors and promulgated in a highly irregular process.”

As time went on, Shulman said, the prevalence of neighborhood schools and housing patterns produced more segregation. “I told people in the civil rights movement that if people came to me [to oppose segregation] I would represent them pro bono.” Cruz-Guzman is the result.