CA Supreme Court shuts down lawsuit against teachers union job protections


School teacherDeclining to hear an appeal, the California Supreme Court brought an apparent end to the saga of California’s historic lawsuit against teachers union job protections, alleged to violate students’ constitutional rights. A majority of justices “declined to hear the case, Vergara v. California, and let stand an appeals court ruling that preserved an array of employment rights,” the Los Angeles Times reported.

“The outcome left some union opponents looking for a different battlefield in the ongoing wars over public education, while others said they should try the courts again. The Vergara litigation was closely watched across the country as a test of whether courts would invalidate rules that protect teachers on the argument that they violate the rights of students.”

In a twist that left reformers clinging to hope that the Vergara cause could still be advanced, the justices who declined to hear the case left the door open to an untested alternative. “The majority of justices didn’t say why they chose not to review rulings by the courts of appeal,” EdSource observed. “Lawsuits involving state education issues generally cannot be appealed to federal courts. However, Theodore Boutrous, lead attorney for Students Matter, said that attorneys were exploring that option or pursuing another lawsuit in state courts.”

Revolutionary potential 

Supporters of the defendants in the Vergara case, including some prominent state Democrats, breathed a sigh of relief. The persistence of the case had not only surprised unions and their supporters but forced them onto treacherous political terrain. At stake was a potent logic of argument seen by pro-union groups as a serious new threat to the status quo for teachers unions, which have attained substantial political power in California and other states. On the one hand, Vergara invoked the language of the landmark Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court ruling, potentially recasting the debate over teachers unions in explicit civil rights terms. On the other, the case linked up high principle with the practical matters that most often animate change in the education system at the local level. “The main thrust of the suit’s argument was that students’ academic performance would improve if school officials were more easily able to fire bad teachers,” as UPI recalled.

“The plaintiffs challenged five statutes that offer teachers protection — including one that gives tenure after two years and another that makes it more complicated to terminate educators. Such protections have been in place in California and the rest of the United States for decades as a measure to bolster an often shallow candidate pool.”

At first, plaintiffs prevailed. But as the case made its way through the courts, trouble arose. “Los Angeles Superior Court ruled in favor of Vergara in 2014, but an appeals court overturned that decision in April,” the wire added, “which sent the matter to the California Supreme Court.”

Sharp dissents

Despite the majority’s decision, however, three justices dissented, warning that the scope and force of the claims in Vergara required the state Supreme Court at least to review them. Both Goodwin Liu and Mariano-Florentino Cuéllar — “ardent advocates for the rights of minority children as law professors before Gov. Jerry Brown nominated them to the court,” as EdSource noted — insisted “that the appeals court set too high a threshold in concluding that an identifiable group of student, with common characteristics, had to be harmed – the basis for bringing a challenge involving a fundamental right to an education under the state Constitution.”

“Difficult as it is to embrace the logic of the appellate court on this issue, it is even more difficult to allow that court’s decision to stay on the books without review in a case of enormous statewide importance,” wrote Cuéllar, with Liu asking “whether the education clauses of our state Constitution guarantee a minimum level of quality below which our public schools cannot be permitted to fall.”

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