In May, I wrote about the new school choice law and how it will be applied in the upcoming school year. In that post, I predicted that the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals would likely rule that the appeal from Judge Dawson’s ruling that the previous school choice law violates the Equal Protection Clause is moot due to the General Assembly’s enactment of the new school choice law. Yesterday, that’s exactly what happened.
The Eighth Circuit issued an opinion yesterday rendering the case moot due to the enactment of the Public School Choice Act of 2013, which repealed the former school choice law in its entirety. In doing so, the court followed the general rule that statutory changes that discontinue a challenged practice are usually enough to render a case moot, even if the legislature retains the ability to reenact the challenged provisions in the future. The plaintiffs in the case, parents whose children had been denied school choice transfers under the former law due to their race, argued that because the new law expires in 2015, the General Assembly is sure to revisit school choice in the 2015 general legislative session and will be free to reenact the race-based limitations. As such, the parents asked the court to issue a ruling on the merits of the case. The court disagreed, finding that the General Assembly’s decision to rewrite the entire statute and remove all race-based classifications evidenced its intent to move away from this constitutionally sensitive issue. The court found there was no reason to believe that the General Assembly would once again enact the challenged provisions of the former law. For these reasons, the court ordered the district court to dismiss the parents’ complaint as moot.
So what does this mean? Well, technically the State wins, not on the merits, but because it corrected the allegedly unconstitutional practice before a final resolution could be reached by the courts. Judge Dawson’s opinion is vacated, rendering it legally void, almost like it never happened. I say “almost” like it never happened, because even though there’s technically no valid order ruling that the former race-based limitations are unconstitutional, I believe the General Assembly heard Judge Dawson loud and clear, and so I don’t see a return to the previous practice. If anything, I predict a broadening of choice limitations in the future, especially if our legislature becomes more conservative.
This case has no bearing on the upcoming school year, as transfers will proceed under the new law, though that law too is currently being challenged. Earlier this month, Federal District Judge Kris Baker refused parents’ request for a temporary injunction against the Blytheville School District that would allow students to transfer out of the district while the case challenging the district’s use of the opt-out provision of the new law is pending.