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Supreme Court Decision Update - Zuni v. Department of Education

newMexico.jpgIn the unnecessarily long opinion, Zuni v. Department of Education (PDF of the opinion) about school funding, a 5-4 court (divided in a strange way) decided to uphold lower rulings and apply a particular school funding formula to reduce funding to two school districts.

QuizLaw Analysis: The Supremes basically handed two New Mexico school districts their asses, siding with the Secretary of Education over an equalization formula and denying the two schools (which have a predominantly American Indian enrollment) around $20 million a year in funding. The opinion itself revolves around your basic first-year law school argument over what should control: The text or the intent of a statute.

So we’re talking school funding? Yes, this case is all about school funding. Specifically, it’s about the Federal Impact Aid Program, which provides extra funding to local school districts which are adversely affected by a federal presence (such as military bases or, in this instance, Indian Reservations). Two school districts, Zuni Public Schools and Gallup-McKinley public schools (hereinafter referred to collectively as “Zuni”) sued the Department of Education, claiming that the state of New Mexico improperly reduced aid to Zuni to offset the federal Impact Aid it received.

Can states reduce their aid to schools getting federal aid? Well normally, no, a state cannot reduce aid to a local education agency that receives Impact Aid, unless the Department of Education certifies that the state equalizes expenditures for free public education among local educational agencies in the State. And that leads to the big issue in this case: What is the proper formula to use for determining whether a state is equalized.

Wait, what’s this formula? The statute sets out a formula that “instructs the Secretary to compare the local school district with the greatest per-pupil expenditures to the school district with the smallest per-pupil expenditures to see whether the former exceeds the latter by more than 25 percent. So long as it does not, the state aid program qualifies as a program that ‘equalizes expenditures.’” But the statute also tells the Secretary to “disregard” school districts “with per-pupil expenditures … above the 95th percentile or below the 5th percentile of such expenditures.” In other words, cut out the top and bottom, and all the rest need to be within 25 percent for the program to be considered equalized.

And how does that come into play here? The Secretary made those percentile cutoffs based on per-pupil expenditures, while Zuni claims the authorizing statute mandated that the cutoffs should be based solely on the number of school districts “without any consideration of the number of pupils in those districts.” And these differing formulas are critical here: In the Secretary’s formula, New Mexico is allowed to offset Zuni’s funding (because the relevant numbers fall within that 25 percent threshold, meaning there’s equalized expenditures). Under the formula Zuni suggests, however, the state could not offset funding, resulting in an extra $20 million or so a year for the two schools.

So what does the Court say? The Court says that the question is really what Congress wanted. And Justice Breyer, writing for the majority (which included Justices Stevens, Kennedy, Ginsburg, and Alito), says “that method is the kind of highly technical, specialized interstitial matter that Congress does not decide itself, but delegates to specialized agencies to decide.” In this case, that agency is the Department of Education. Moreover, the statute’s language was originally drafted by the Secretary himself, so the Secretary would be in a better position to determine the specifics of the formula. Plus, the statute itself is sufficiently broad and ambiguous to to allow for the Secretary’s interpretation.

In other words, Breyer says, the statute may have stated that the formula should be based solely on the number of pupils in each district, but the intent of the statute was to factor in per-pupil expenditures.

In his concurrence, Justice Stevens, in a bitchy kind of way, quotes Justice Rehnquist (“in rare cases the literal application of a statute will produce a result demonstrably at odds with the intentions of its drafters, and those intentions must be controlling”) to rebut Scalia’s strict interpretation dissent, and reiterates that statutory intent should control over the literal meaning of the statute. Justice Kennedy, meanwhile, also concurs, but insists on mentioning that he thought the opinion should’ve been arranged differently. But since the arrangement didn’t affect the majority’s outcome, he’ll go with his boy Breyer.

That all seems pretty straightforward. So why is the opinion so long? It’s Scalia’s dissent that really adds the pages here, and you don’t even have to read the opinion in full to know the gist of Scalia’s argument: The text should rule. And he naturally blathers on and on about the importance of the plain text and how looking to the intent of a statute is just a loophole for legislating from the bench. But Scalia’s opinion is (as they always are) the most entertaining, as he takes issue with the Court’s decision to defer to the Secretary on technical matters:

To understand why, one first must look beyond the smokescreen that the Court lays down with its repeated apologies for inexperience in statistics, and its endless recitation of technical mathematical definitions of the word “percentile.” See, e.g., ante, at 12–13 (“ ‘The n-th percentile is the value xn/100 such that n per cent of the population is less than or equal to xn/100.’ ” (quoting C. Clapham & J. Nicholson, The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Mathematics 378 (3d ed. 2005))). This case is not a scary math problem; it is a straightforward matter of statutory interpretation. And we do not need the Court’s hypothetical cadre of number-crunching amici, ante, at 17, to guide our way.

Beautifully done, Scalia.

He then goes on to basically accuse the Court of shoehorning its own policy preferences into its opinion. Meanwhile, in Souter’s dissent, he agrees with the majority that the intent of the statute was probably in the Secretary’s favor, but says that the statute’s language is unambiguous and therefore statutory intent should not have been factored in.