June 25, 2009

Supreme Court Decides Horne v. Flores

On June 25, 2009, the Supreme Court decided Horne v. Flores, No. 08-289.

In 1992, a group of students who were enrolled in the English Language Learner (ELL) program in the Nogales Unified School District in Arizona sued the State of Arizona and several public officials, alleging that they were violating the Equal Educational Opportunities Act of 1974 (EEOA), which provides that no state may deny equal educational opportunity to anyone on account of race, color, sex, or national origin by failing to take appropriate action to overcome language barriers that impede students' equal participation in educational programs. In 2000, the federal district court concluded that the defendants were violating the EEOA because the amount of funding that the State allocated to the ELL program was arbitrary and not related to the actual funding needed to cover the costs of the ELL program in Nogales. The district court followed that judgment with a series of additional orders and injunctions requiring the State to take certain actions. In 2001, the district court extended the declaratory judgment and injunction to the entire State of Arizona, despite the fact that the class consisted only of students and parents in the Nogales school district. Later, the trial court held the State in contempt for failure to follow the court's orders and imposed a daily fine on the State.

In 2006, a group of legislators intervened in the case and moved for relief under Rule 60(b)(5) based on changed circumstances in light of the State Legislature's enactment of a new law that increased ELL funding and made other structural changes to the program. The district court denied the motion after an evidentiary hearing, holding that the new state law did not establish an appropriate funding system. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit affirmed the denial, holding that to obtain relief under Rule 60(b)(5), the State had to prove either: (a) there were no longer incremental costs associated with ELL programs; or (b) the State altered its funding model. The State was unable to prove either of those things.

The Supreme Court reversed the Ninth Circuit in a 5-4 decision. The Court first held that the superintendent of schools had standing to appeal the district court's order because he was a named defendant in the case and the district court's order held him to be in violation of the EEOA. The Court therefore did not consider whether the intervening legislators also had standing to appeal. The Court then held that the lower courts misapplied Rule 60(b)(5), which allows a party to obtain relief from a judgment or order if "applying [the judgment or order] prospectively is no longer equitable." The Court observed that the rule is designed for cases in which a significant change either in factual conditions or in law makes continued enforcement of an order detrimental to the public interest. The Court noted that the rule is especially important in "institutional-reform litigation" because injunctions in such cases often remain in effect for many years, and the passage of time often brings about changed circumstances that warrant reexamining the original judgment or order. In addition, such orders often raise sensitive federalism concerns, especially where a federal court dictates state or local budget priorities, as in this case. The Court held that federal courts must take a "flexible approach" to Rule 60(b)(5) motions, and ensure that responsibility for discharging the state's obligations is returned to state officials as soon as the circumstances warrant. Courts must remain especially attentive to federalism concerns, particularly if the order is aimed at eliminating a condition that does not violate federal law.

The Court held that the lower courts erred in using a stricter standard than was appropriate, and focusing on whether the State's increased ELL funding complied with the original declaratory judgment, as opposed to focusing on whether changed circumstances existed that made the original declaratory judgment no longer appropriate because there was no longer a violation of federal law. The Court remanded the case to the lower courts for consideration of four specific changed circumstances that are relevant to the Rule 60(b)(5) analysis.

Justice Alito delivered the opinion of the Court, in which the Chief Justice and Justices Scalia, Kennedy, and Thomas joined. Justice Breyer filed a dissenting opinion, in which Justices Stevens, Souter, and Ginsburg joined.

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