Tuesday, October 6, 2015
Judge Tanya Chutkan (D.D.C.) last week denied the District of Columbia's motion to dismiss key parts of a claim by D.C. charter schools that the D.C. government under-funded them in comparison to District public schools. The lengthy ruling is laden with analysis on the constitutional relationship between Congress and the District, much of it indeterminate, reminding us just how complicated this relationship can be.
The plaintiff charter schools brought the case, arguing that the D.C. government funneled extra money to D.C. public schools, but not charter schools, in violation of the District Clause and Home Rule Act, the Supremacy Clause, and the School Reform Act. In particular, the plaintiffs argued that the D.C. government violated the Home Rule Act by altering a a congressional act (the School Reform Act) without specific congressional authorization. The District countered that it has authority under the Home Rule Act to amend or repeal the School Reform Act, because the School Reform Act applies only to the District.
Judge Chutkan ruled that neither the case law nor the Home Rule Act tells when Congress acts in tandem with the D.C. City Council (so that the Council could alter a congressional act), or when Congress has the final word--at least in the abstract. So she turned to the text and history of the School Reform Act to answer the question here. But Judge Chutkan said that the School Reform Act was similarly indeterminate. She wrote that the Act's apparent mandatory language on equal school funding for charters and public schools wasn't dispositive, because "if the District can (and has) repealed Acts of Congress that used the term 'shall,' then that term alone cannot necessarily delineate Congress' intent with respect to the Council's authority.'" Moreover, Judge Chutkan said that the legislative history of the School Reform Act didn't answer the question. The upshot: "As it stands, the uniform funding formula is on the books, and it is not clear whether it has been violated, whether it has been amended or repealed by Council enactments (through Congressional acquiescence or otherwise), or whether the challenged actions do not implicate or conflict with the funding formula at all." She thus denied the District's motion to dismiss the District Clause, Home Rule Act, and School Reform Act claims. The ruling means that these claims can move forward.
In contrast, Judge Chutkan did dismiss the plaintiffs' Supremacy Clause claim. That's because the Supremacy Clause doesn't apply to congressional acts over D.C.; the District Clause does. The analysis is the same, Judge Chutkan wrote, but the Supremacy Clause doesn't do the work.