John Roberts Steps Back

The Supreme Court ruled on Monday that "that the nation's school systems are not legally obliged to prove the adequacy of individualized educational programs set up for disabled children."

The 6-2 ruling in Schaffer v. Weast was another of those disability rights decisions in which the ruling rested on money. The Washington Post reported that the ruling "was a major blow to parents' advocacy organizations, which argued that most families are not financially able to bear the burden of persuasion when going up against a board of education or a school superintendent."

"Until now, there has been impetus for both sides to really mediate and work things out," Wendy Byrnes, a parent advocate at the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund told the New York Times. "This decision tips the scale in the district's favor, so that a school district will not be so motivated to work something out."

Sure enough. The Washington Post is now reporting that the local school district plan to "upend" their policies. D.C. school board President Peggy Cooper Cafritz told reporters, "We have the highest number of court hearings in the country. This will help us pare down the amount of money spent on special education and allow us to use that money to give students a world-class education in the D.C. school system."

Erika Pierson, the school system's deputy general counsel, told the post that the Supreme Court ruling "will keep some attorneys from filing frivolous cases."

Linda Greenhouse, in her New York Times story, noted that "Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. did not take part in the case, which was argued on Oct. 5, because his former law firm represented the school district."

I couldn't help wondering how many cases Roberts will have to recuse himself from because his former law firm represented the school district. I'm particularly curious about the disability rights cases. As I wrote back when his confirmation squall was in full gale, Roberts was the attorney who represented Toyota in an important 2002 Americans with Disabilities Act Supreme Court ruling wherein, among other things, the Court, following Roberts' reasoning, ruled that people with carpal tunnel and other repetitive stress injuries can't use the ADA (they're not "truly disabled," is how Sandra Day O'Connor put it) -- thus taking the law's civil rights protections out of the reach of millions of U.S. workers.

I recall some folks telling me that it wasn't fair to bring up Roberts' actions as attorney -- that being an attorney on a case wasn't the same thing as being a judge. That's true of course. I just felt his thinking in the Toyota case indicated a way of viewing things that we should be aware of.

But maybe the fact that he has to recuse himself when cases he was involved in come before the Supremes means he won't have as much chance to do damage. Somehow, though, I imagine he'll find enough other cases to use to whittle back disability rights to endear him to those who wanted him as the Chief Supreme.

November 16, 2005 | Email this story


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