Judges, beware: Your job may be in jeopardy if you try to promote equal education for all students, according to a Center For American Progress report out Thursday.
The provocative new report outlines four cases -- in New Jersey, Alaska, Kansas and Washington -- where Republican legislators tried to or threatened to punish judges who ordered that the state give more money to disadvantaged districts. In these cases, lawmakers attempted to halt funding for courts, oust specific judges or restrict judicial authority to avoid providing districts with equal financial resources.
The report explains that because American school systems generally get their funding from local state property taxes, districts with wealthier residents and higher property values are naturally better funded than districts with lower-income residents. Although most state legislatures step in to equalize this system by providing disadvantaged districts with more money, the report says legislators have been reluctant to do so since the Great Recession. This runs counter to provisions in most state constitutions, requiring that school-aged children receive adequate educations.
Examples of legislators trying to infringe on judicial authority are striking. In New Jersey, after the state Supreme Court ruled that the legislature’s 2010 budget cuts to education were unconstitutional, Governor Chris Christie (R) “threw a respected justice off the bench by denying him tenure … in an unprecedented power grab,” the report says. Christie has also openly criticized the judicial branch for “legislating from the bench,” in regard to the school funding lawsuit. He has also stated his intention to “remake” the court.
While the Kansas Supreme Court mulled the high-profile school funding case Gannon v. Kansas, Republican Gov. Sam Brownback “warned that an order for a specific funding increase could lead lawmakers to consider a constitutional amendment to change the way that high court justices are appointed,” says the report. Nonetheless, the court ruled the state’s current funding system unconstitutional and ordered the immediate reversal of previous education cuts. Brownback has since said that his “commitment is to work with legislative leadership to address the allocation issue identified by the court."
There are currently a number of other cases in state courts across the country, regarding inequitable school funding systems. But Billy Corriher, author of the report and Director of Research for Legal Progress at American Progress, says he worries how legislators’ behavior in places like New Jersey and Kansas will impact future judicial rulings.
“If you have judges out there who know that legislators are going to try to kick them off the bench or try to change the way they’re appointed or limit their authority if they rule a certain way, that judge might be hesitant to make the legislator angry. That’s not how courts are supposed to work,” Corriher told The Huffington Post over the phone.
He also said that some of the animosity between legislators and judges in these states develop because legislators do not want the judicial branch ruling on budget issues.
”Legislators feel like these cases are really intruding,” Corriher said. “They feel like any time a court orders more money, the court is violating the separation of powers. … But if the courts aren’t able judge the legislature then we are letting the legislature be the judge for itself.”