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Justice clarifies status of Idaho schools case

Idaho Supreme Court didn’t fix problems, critics say

BOISE – Idaho Supreme Court Justice Roger Burdick now says he misspoke when he said in a televised campaign debate that Idaho’s long-standing school funding lawsuit isn’t over.

“That was a misstatement,” Burdick told The Spokesman-Review on Monday. The court “indicated the case was over.”

The end of the drawn-out case, which stretched 19 years, came in late 2005 after the Idaho Supreme Court ruled the state’s system for funding school construction unconstitutional and ordered the Legislature to fix it. The state high court then closed the case without any further action or review of subsequent legislative changes.

Burdick’s challenger in his bid for re-election to the court, 2nd District Judge John Bradbury, has been sharply critical of the court’s handling of the case, which he calls the “darkest day in the history of the Idaho Supreme Court.”

Bradbury said Monday, “If you take Justice Burdick’s approach, it is up to each branch to decide whether they comply with the Constitution. It’s an incredible, abject abdication of the court’s role.”

Burdick took the issue a step further on Monday, issuing a press release in which he accused Bradbury of advocating an “activist” approach to the issue, and characterized the Idaho Supreme Court’s approach as a “conservative” one that worked. He cited legislation passed in 2006 and said, “the court … got the desired results.”

Those new laws included one that required school districts to spend more of their existing funds on building maintenance, and also set up an emergency fund for replacing unsafe schools, but only in conjunction with a state takeover of the school district. Another cut Idaho property taxes while raising the sales tax from 5 to 6 percent, providing property tax relief and shifting funding for school operations to the state’s general fund.

Burdick said in his press release, “This addressed the main problem identified by the court in earlier decisions – the reliance on the property tax to fund school facilities and the difficulty imposed by that system on poor school districts.”

Robert Huntley, the attorney for a group of school districts that brought the school lawsuit and a former Idaho Supreme Court justice, took issue with Burdick’s contention that the two laws fixed the problem. “He has no evidence to base that on,” Huntley said. “No court has heard evidence as to whether the statutes fix the problem or not.”

In fact, both sides in the case – the school districts and the state – filed documents with the court in spring 2006 about legislation enacted in that year’s regular session, with the state arguing that it solved the school funding problem and the schools arguing that it worsened the problem. The high court accepted the filings but took no action, saying the case was over.

Burdick said he believed the only “remedy” for Idaho’s situation was to be found in the state Legislature, due to separation of powers. But Bradbury noted that the Wyoming Supreme Court, facing a similar school funding case, set a time limit for compliance, reviewed its legislature’s actions including big increases in school funding, and then declared that state’s system constitutional in 2008. Bradbury said Wyoming’s Supreme Court is “about as conservative as you can get.”

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