Bench Memos

This Day in Liberal Judicial Activism—August 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.

2006—In a front-page story in the New York Times, Supreme Court reporter Linda Greenhouse reports a “sudden drop” in the number of female law clerks for the first full year of the Roberts Court. Justice Souter, who has no female clerks for that year, attributes the reduction to random variation, but Greenhouse observes that Justice Ginsburg had considered the drop sufficiently significant to take note of it in a speech to the American Sociological Association. Whatever Ginsburg’s sociological musings might have been, she ought to have had a keener understanding of the consequences of nondiscriminatory merit-based selection and random variation. In her 1993 Supreme Court confirmation hearing, it was learned, much to Ginsburg’s visible embarrassment, that in her 13 years on the D.C. Circuit she had never had a single black law clerk, intern, or secretary. Out of 57 employees, zero blacks.

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