SPLC’s Goldstein to Judges: Stop Deferring to School Administrators

By December 13, 2011

In his latest column for The Huffington Post, Student Press Law Center Attorney Advocate Adam Goldstein makes a powerful argument against the longstanding judicial practice of granting school administrators substantial deference when reviewing their decisions in court. 

Goldstein cites two excellent encapsulations of this common judicial posture. First, he notes a November speech by Judge Richard Posner of the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, in which Judge Posner opined that "judges ought to be very cautious before they try to displace the authority of the school administrators." Second, Goldstein recalls a notorious line from Supreme Court Justice Byron White’s all-too-familiar majority opinion in Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier (1988): "The education of the Nation’s youth is primarily the responsibility of parents, teachers, and state and local officials, and not of federal judges." 

As Goldstein and I both know too well, it would be very easy indeed to populate this list further. But I’ll add just one recent example: Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s recent bow from the bench to administrators in Christian Legal Society v. Martinez. In her majority opinion, Justice Ginsburg summarized the practice nicely: "Cognizant that judges lack the on-the-ground expertise and experience of school administrators, however, we have cautioned courts in various contexts to resist substitut[ing] their own notions of sound educational policy for those of the school authorities which they review." (Internal quotation and citations omitted.) 

So what’s wrong with judges treating school administrators as though they’re all-knowing masters of an impenetrably esoteric field, blessed with an expertise that renders their decisions beyond question? Well, as Goldstein wisely notes: 

Educators are not perfect. And while education may be primarily the responsibility of educators, it is primarily the responsibility of judges to ensure the rights of young people are not violated in the process of education. 

That’s exactly right. Judges aren’t school administrators; fair enough. But that sure doesn’t mean that judges cannot or should not hold school administrators responsible when they throw the basic constitutional rights of students out the window. While we don’t want judges grading papers and setting curriculum, there’s surely no public benefit in simply giving school administrators a blank pass in the form of undue deference to every decision they make. 

Arguing that it’s long past time to "end this bizarre practice that assumes judges who are competent to decide whether a man lives or dies for his crimes are incompetent to decide whether a school administrator crossed a line in a strip-search," Goldstein continues: 

Of course education is primarily the responsibility of educators and parents. That doesn’t mean judges are incompetent to ensure that the education students receive respects their basic civil rights. 

I couldn’t agree more. Check out Goldstein’s excellent piece in full here.