Wednesday, December 9, 2015
The Wisconsin Supreme Court has taken up an interesting case that questions the powers of the state superintendent of education. In dispute is a 2011 law that requires all administrative rules to be approved by the governor. Under that law, the governor is asserting power over the state superintendent. But a state supreme court case from two decades ago, Thompson v. Craney, 546 N.W.2d 123, 134 (1996), held that the state superintendent is an independent head of the Department of Public Instruction. The relevant constitution text was amended in 1902 to read:
The supervision of public instruction shall be vested in a state superintendent and such other officers as the legislature shall direct; and their qualifications, powers, duties, and compensation shall be prescribed by law. The state superintendent shall be chosen by the qualified electors of the state at the same time and in the same manner as members of the supreme court, and shall hold his office for four years from the succeeding first Monday in July. The state superintendent chosen at the general election in November, 1902, shall hold and continue in his office until the first Monday in July, 1905, and his successor shall be chosen at the time of the judicial election in April, 1905. The term of office, time and manner of electing or appointing all other officers of supervision of public instruction shall be fixed by law.
The court concluded:
Our review of these sources demonstrates beyond a reasonable doubt that the office of state Superintendent of Public Instruction was intended by the framers of the constitution to be a supervisory position, and that the “other officers” mentioned in the provision were intended to be subordinate to the state Superintendent of Public Instruction. Because the education provisions of 1995 Wis.Act 27 give the former powers of the elected state Superintendent of Public Instruction to appointed “other officers” at the state level who are not subordinate to the superintendent, they are unconstitutional beyond a reasonable doubt. If changes such as those proposed in 1995 Wis.Act 27 are to be made in the structure of educational administration—and we express no judgment on the possible merits of the changes—they would require a constitutional amendment.
That the current state law is in direct contradiction of this precedent. The state attorney general is asking the court to reverse Thompson and, thereby, bring the state superintendent under the control of the governor. I am guessing the the odds on this are long. The lower court, in a straightforward decision, has already ruled against the state. As it remarked in closing,
We reject th[e governor's] argument for reasons that should be obvious by now. The argument's premise, that the Governor's new power conferred by Act 21 gives the Governor “no power to fashion the text of a proposed rule,” is a premise Walker and Huebsch do not attempt to explain or defend. So far as we can tell, it is a premise that ignores reality. It seems beyond reasonable dispute that a Governor at loggerheads with an SPI over the content of a proposed rule, or proposed rule change, could use the threat to withhold approval as a means of affecting the rule content. Moreover, the analogy to the Governor's power to veto legislation is unpersuasive. As here, the threat of a Governor's veto can shape proposed legislation toward the Governor's preference. And, by constitutional design, a Governor's veto can be overridden by the legislature. Here, the Governor's approval authority is not similarly limited.
The case also has implications on a related phenomenon in other states: charter legislation that divests the state superintendent of educational authority. The Washington Supreme Court struck down that legislation earlier this year. What Washington and Wisconsin's legislature and governor fail to appreciate is that in those states where the superintendent of education is a constitutional officer, the state is not free to pass any education legislation that suits its fancy.