By Wendy Lecker
In a groundbreaking decision, the Minnesota Supreme Court has determined that claims of public school segregation brought under the State constitution’s education clause are justiciable, that is, they may be adjudicated by the courts. The Court, in its July 25 ruling in Cruz-Guzman v. Minnesota, concluded that a constitutionally adequate education in Minnesota includes ensuring schools are free from segregation by race and socio-economic status.
The plaintiffs in Cruz-Guzman are parents and children enrolled in public schools in Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota. They filed a class action complaint in 2015, contending that school segregation deprived children in these districts of an adequate education under Minnesota’s constitution, as well as the guarantee of Equal Protection and Due Process. The plaintiffs are represented by a team led by Daniel Shulman of the Minneapolis law firm, Gray Plant Mooty.
Education Law Center, along with over twenty of the nation’s leading education and constitutional law scholars, filed an amicus curae brief in the Minnesota Supreme Court in support of the plaintiffs in this case. Jones Day attorneys Todd Geremia and James Gross, as well as Christina Lindberg, represented ELC and the scholars pro bono.
The State moved to dismiss the case, and, in 2017, the district court denied that motion. However, the court of appeals reversed the decision, holding that claims of State violations of the Minnesota constitution’s education guarantee were non-justiciable political questions to be determined solely by the Legislature.
On July 25, the Minnesota Supreme Court forcefully disagreed and reaffirmed the judiciary’s role in ensuring the education rights of Minnesota children.
School Segregation in Minneapolis and St. Paul
In its ruling, the Court noted that the complaint set forth “copious data demonstrating a ‘high degree of segregation based on race and socioeconomic status’ in Minneapolis and Saint Paul public schools.” The Court further acknowledged that these segregated schools “have significantly worse academic outcomes in comparison with neighboring schools and suburban school districts.”
The plaintiffs identified State policies that cause this segregation, including:
- boundary decisions for school districts and school attendance areas;
- the formation of segregated charter schools;
- the decision to exempt charter schools from desegregation plans;
- the use of federal and state desegregation funds for other purposes;
- the failure to implement effective desegregation remedies; and
- the inequitable allocation of resources.
Minnesota’s constitution provides that “it is the duty of the legislature to establish a general and uniform system of public schools.” The State argued that because it is the legislature’s duty to provide an adequate education, it would violate the separation of powers doctrine for the judiciary to rule on matters of educational adequacy. The State also argued that ruling on these claims would improperly embroil the judiciary in complex educational policy matters. The Supreme Court disagreed.
The Court noted that specific educational policy matters are the province of the legislature, but that fact does not bar courts from determining whether the legislature has fulfilled its obligation under the constitution.
To the contrary, the Court ruled, it would be an abdication of the judiciary’s duty if the Court “unquestioningly accep[ted] that whatever the Legislature has chosen to do fulfills the Legislature’s duty to provide an adequate education.” As the Court noted, the education clause is a mandate to the Legislature, not a grant of power.
The Court further held that to rule that these claims are non-justiciable would be to leave claims under the education clause without a remedy, violating the long-held principle that where there is a right, there is a remedy.
The Court also rejected the notion that the judiciary cannot manage complex education claims. It noted the judicial branch role is to interpret the language of the constitution—and “[w]e will not shy away from our proper role to provide remedies for violations of fundamental rights merely because education is a complex area.” The Court pointed out that the plaintiffs are merely asking the Court to declare that the State violated the constitution—they did not ask the Court to dictate to the State how to remedy this violation. Thus, thus the Court need not engage in any improper policy-making.
Definition of Adequacy
The State contended that judicial interpretation of the education article would involve an improper qualitative assessment by the Court of what constitutes an adequate education. The Court agreed that a qualitative assessment is required, but rejected the claim that a judicial definition of adequacy is improper, holding instead that this task is intrinsic to the court’s role.
The Court pointed out that, in a previous case, it had ruled that education is a fundamental right under Minnesota’s constitution. In this case, the Court elaborated, ruling that “an education that does not equip Minnesotans to discharge their duties as citizens intelligently cannot fulfill the Legislature’s duty to provide an adequate education under the Education Clause.”
Importantly, the Court emphasized that “[i]t is self-evident that a segregated system of public schools is not ‘general,’ ‘uniform,’ ‘thorough,’ or ‘efficient’” under Minnesota’s Education Clause.
Districts and Charters Not “Necessary Parties”
The State argued that the case must be dismissed because the districts and charter schools were not joined as “necessary parties.” The Court ruled that the mere fact that the districts and charters may be affected by any ruling in this case does not require their joinder. The plaintiffs are seeking relief solely from the State. The Court noted that “many non-parties are bound to be affected by a judicial ruling in an action regarding the constitutionality of state statutes or state action, but they cannot all be required to be a part of the suit.”
This Supreme Court decision allows the Cruz-Guzman plaintiffs’ claim to proceed to trial. It also provides guidance for the trial court to set qualitative standards against which to assess the evidence of student segregation in the Minneapolis and St. Paul schools. Finally, the Court makes abundantly clear that the courts are available for school children across Minnesota to seek redress of violations of their rights to a constitutionally adequate education which, according to this Court, includes an education that is free from segregation.
Wendy Lecker is a Senior Attorney at Education Law Center
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