May 2, 2008 in Idaho

Judge hears school funding suit

Betsy Z. Russell Staff writer
 

BOISE – Idaho’s highest court can’t declare the state’s school funding system unconstitutional and then let it continue that way, the attorney for a group of school districts told a federal judge Thursday.

“How can anybody look at this record and say we have had due process?” asked attorney Robert Huntley.

But Merlyn Clark, attorney for five Idaho Supreme Court justices whom Huntley and the districts are suing, say the answer shouldn’t come from the federal judge.

“The federal court doesn’t have jurisdiction to direct the Supreme Court of Idaho in how it should decide the case and how it should conduct its business,” Clark said.

U.S. District Judge B. Lynn Winmill took the arguments under advisement, but he called the case “a head-scratcher.”

“I think if you were to run this by 100 law professors … 95 would say there’s no way in the world you can enjoin a state court,” the judge said. But five would say you can, and “they may be right.”

Idaho historically has left the full cost of school construction to local property taxpayers, who must vote by a two-thirds supermajority to raise their own taxes to build or replace a school.

The school districts, along with a group of students and parents, first sued the state over the funding system 18 years ago. The case went to the Idaho Supreme Court five times; the state lost every time, but continued appealing. Finally, in 2005, the high court declared the funding system unconstitutional, because it forced children in poor districts to attend school in unsafe buildings.

“The current funding system is simply not sufficient to carry out the Legislature’s duty under the constitution,” Justice Linda Copple Trout wrote for the court.

After that, both sides expected the courts to begin a “remedy” phase and examine whether legislative changes have fixed the system or more changes were needed. But the Supreme Court simply declared the case closed.

Huntley, a former Idaho Supreme Court justice and former unsuccessful candidate for governor, took the unusual step of suing the five justices who ruled on the case, only two of whom still sit on the bench.

Delays in the case over the years, in addition to the appeals, included an unsuccessful move by the Legislature in 2003 to cancel the lawsuit by passing a law to turn the tables and make the school districts into defendants, charging they should fix school building problems without state help. That law was declared unconstitutional in state district court and by the Idaho Supreme Court.

Clark filed a motion seeking either dismissal of the federal case or to be allowed to appeal it midstream to the 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals, challenging the U.S. District Court’s jurisdiction.

Huntley, who’s asking for a declaration that failure by the Idaho Supreme Court to finish the case violates the plaintiffs’ constitutional rights, said that’s just another delaying tactic – the whole case can be appealed to the 9th Circuit after Winmill rules.

The judge said: “I think you’ll be on your way to the 9th Circuit in short order, after I take a stab at it.”


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