The National Campaign to Restore Civil Rights previously wrote about how one ruling that is bad news for civil rights can start a domino effect and impact other cases, even in seemingly unrelated areas of law. The good news is that sometimes not all of the dominoes fall. Courts are supposed to evaluate each case on its own merits, applying past decisions in a thoughtful way to promote fairness and justice -- and sometimes the outcome of a case reflects this thoughtfulness.
Some of you may recall the Supreme Court’s 2009 ruling in Horne v. Flores. The Horne case began in the 1990s when parents sued the state of Arizona for underfunding its educational programming for English Language Learners (ELL), which deprived non-English speaking students of educational opportunities. After several rulings the parents and the state reached an agreement and the lower court issued an injunction ordering the state to provide adequate funding for the ELL program. Seventeen years and countless students later, the state still had not fixed the problem, and the parents returned to court to ask that the state finally be required to provide proper funding. Instead of being held responsible for living up to its obligations, however, political leaders who asked to join the case somehow managed to convince the Supreme Court that new educational policies and program changes that supposedly improved English-learner and K-12 education overall made it detrimental to the public interest to keep the injunction in place and do right by children who needed language services -- all this well before the recent trend in anti-immigrant laws like Arizona’s.
Horne opened the door for state governments and agencies to unravel agreements they entered into to reform state agencies or institutions -- even though these agreements are court-ordered and were signed to settle lawsuits. States figured that they could now challenge settlement agreements based on a subsequent change in circumstances or law regardless of whether they fulfilled their obligation to fix the problem at issue.
Fast-forward to August 2010 and head over to the state of Tennessee, and you’ll find another lawsuit that has been around since the early 90s. United States v. Tennessee was originally filed to address inhumane conditions, abuse and inadequate medical care in a number of state institutions for people with psychological and developmental disabilities. Following a series of court rulings, a lower federal court found that Tennessee had violated the civil rights of residents of these institutions and ordered the state to remedy the violations.
However, like Arizona in the Horne case, Tennessee repeatedly failed to fix the problem and, following the example set in Horne, Tennessee went to federal court in an attempt to convince the court to allow the state to renege on its agreement. Making the same argument, Tennessee claimed that a “significant change...in law” made enforcement of the agreement “detrimental to the public interest” and that the state should be relieved of its legal obligation to improve conditions for people with disabilities under its care at the Arlington Development Center (ADC). Fortunately for long-neglected ADC residents, the federal appeals court responded with a resounding “No!” and ruled that Tennessee must comply with the previous order aimed toward preserving the dignity and safety of those in state-run institutions.
Whether Tennessee decides to try its luck in the Supreme Court in hopes that its “Horne” argument has better luck there remains to be seen. For now, however, the rights of these residents are still protected by a federal court decision.
(Photo by Bikoy.)