Aug. 30 1971—By a vote of 6 to 1, the California supreme court rules in Serrano v. Priest that California’s “public school financing system, with its substantial dependence on local property taxes and resultant wide disparities in school revenue, violates the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.” Specifically, “the right to an education in our public schools is a fundamental interest which cannot be conditioned on wealth,” and the state financing system “invidiously discriminates against the poor because it makes the quality of a child’s education a function of the wealth of his parents and neighbors.”
Two years later (in San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez), the U.S. Supreme Court, by a vote of 5 to 4, rejects Serrano’s analysis, as it rules that Texas’s similar system of financing public school education does not violate equal-protection guarantees. Citing Serrano, Justice Powell’s majority opinion adds this prescient “cautionary postscript”:
“[T]here is nothing simple or certain about predicting the consequences of massive change in the financing and control of public education.… The complexity of these problems is demonstrated by the lack of consensus with respect to whether it may be said with any assurance that the poor, the racial minorities, or the children in overburdened core-city school districts would be benefited by abrogation of traditional modes of financing education.… Additionally, several research projects have concluded that any financing alternative designed to achieve a greater equality of expenditures is likely to lead to higher taxation and lower educational expenditures in the major urban centers, a result that would exacerbate rather than ameliorate existing conditions in those areas.”
Ah, the unintended consequences of liberal judicial activism: According to experts, the Serrano decision “overlooked the fact that 75% of poor children lived in high spending districts,” and it thus “actually led to lower school spending for most poor children” and to “equalized mediocrity.” Further, Serrano and its follow-on rulings are credited with triggering the property-tax revolt that culminated in California’s Proposition 13—“After all, the logic goes, if increased property taxes don’t help our schools, why should we be for increased property taxes”—and helped lead to Ronald Reagan’s election as president in 1980.
Sept. 2 2003—In Summerlin v. Stewart, the Ninth Circuit addresses whether the Supreme Court’s decision in Ring v. Arizona, which held that aggravating factors under Arizona’s death-penalty law need to be proved to a jury rather than to a judge, applies retroactively to cases already final on direct review. The limited en banc panel of eleven judges (a creature unique to the Ninth Circuit), consisting in this case of ten Carter/Clinton appointees and one Reagan appointee, divides 8 to 3 in favor of a ruling that Ring applies retroactively. In her dissent, Judge Rawlinson observes that the majority “wanders afield”—and contradicts a very recent Supreme Court precedent as well as rulings from other circuits—in holding that Ring announced a substantive rule. She also disputes the majority’s alternative holding that Ring announced a watershed rule of criminal procedure.
On review, the Supreme Court (in Schriro v. Summerlin) reverses the Ninth Circuit. Not a single justice expresses agreement with the Ninth Circuit’s holding that Ring announced a substantive rule, and Justice Scalia’s opinion takes four brief paragraphs to dispense with the “remarkable” analysis that covered 20 pages of the Ninth Circuit’s ruling. By a vote of 5 to 4, the Court rules that Ring did not announce a watershed rule of criminal procedure.
For an explanation of this recurring feature, see here.