Thursday, January 22, 2009

Supreme Court gives one to the parents

Section 1983 is a law that allows you to recover damages for the violation of a federal right, identified either in the Constitutional or a civil rights law. A recurring question is whether you can sue under the Constitution when a specific federal statute covers the same territory. Sometimes you can, and sometimes you can't. This time around, with respect to Title IX, the equal rights statute governing public schools, the Supreme Court says you can.

The case is Fitzgerald v. Barnstable School Committee, decided on January 21. There are reasons why someone might bring a constitutional claim under Section 1983 rather than a more specific civil rights statute. Section 1983 offers you all the damages in the world, and it often carries a longer statute of limitations. That's why civil rights lawyers like Section 1983. But the Supreme Court has reigned in the scope of Section 1983 when Congress intended that the more specific civil rights statute means that a parallel constitutional lawsuit is prohibited. The Court knows this when it sees it, since Congress rarely takes time out to specifically say when a particular law preempts Section 1983.

In this case, the Court says that Title IX, which parents invoke when their children suffer gender or racial discrimination in school, is not the only way to challenge these rights violations. The Constitution, as enforced through Section 1983, is another remedy. That is because Congress did not make Title IX a comprehensive statute with all the procedures and remedies normally associated with civil rights laws that do preempt Section 1983. In other words, the Court gives one to the parents this week.

As the Court issued this opinion without dissent, the issue may look like an easy one, especially since the more conservative Justices over the years have reigned in Section 1983 by stating that various laws were sufficiently comprehensive to preempt Section 1983. But, as the Court points out, several federal Circuit Courts had gone the other way on this issue, including the Second Circuit Court of Appeals. As Justice Alito implies, then, Bruneau v. South Kortright Central School Dist., 163 F. 3d 749 (2d 1998), which restricted parents from challenging rights violations under the Constitution, is reversed on that issue.

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