Schaffer v. Weast (04-698), Maryland v. Blake (04-373) and order list

November 14, 2005 Supreme Court Update

Greetings, Court Fans!
The Court returned today with decisions in two cases. In Schaffer v. Weast (04-698), the Court held that, under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), the burden of persuasion in a challenge to an individualized education plan (IEP) for a disabled student rests with the party seeking relief, which usually will be the parents. To ensure that disabled students get a "free appropriate public education," IDEA requires school districts, together with parents, to develop IEPs for all disabled students. Parents can challenge IEPs in an administrative hearing (as can districts, if they want to change an IEP but the parents do not consent). The statute, however, is silent as to who bears the burden of proof. The Schaffers challenged the Montgomery County, Maryland IEP for their son, and the administrative judge charged them with the burden of persuasion and upheld the IEP. The District Court reversed, and the Fourth Circuit reversed right back, holding that IDEA followed the default rule that the burden lies with the party seeking relief. The Court, led by Justice O'Connor, agreed by a vote of 6-2. While the default rule does have some exceptions, the parents were basically arguing that every IEP is invalid until the district proves otherwise, which was not supported by the statute. Also, while a litigant generally does not bear the burden of persuasion where the adversary has all the facts, that exception does not apply here because the IDEA gives parents the right to all records regarding their child plus the right to an independent evaluation. Justice Stevens concurred to say that the Court's ruling did not foreclose a different result under another statute, and that he went with the majority because we should first presume that public school officials are performing their responsibilities appropriately.
There were two dissents. (O'Connor is often the first Justice to publish, but she missed it by one week this Term. Perhaps the dissents are to blame for holding things up.) As proof that not everything is about ideology, Justice Ginsburg echoed Judge Luttig's dissent in the Fourth Circuit, writing that the school district is far better situated to demonstrate that it has satisfied the statute than are parents to show that it has not, and in any event the proponent of the IEP should have to prove its adequacy. Doing so cannot be that burdensome because nine states wrote as amici in favor of the parents. Justice Breyer dissented to say that the issue should be left the states, which under the IDEA have to set up the administrative procedures to begin with. (The majority expressly declined to decide whether states could depart from the default rule because Maryland had no rule on the burden in an IDEA hearing.)
The Court's other ruling was a per curiam one-liner in Maryland v. Blake (04-373), dismissing cert as improvidently granted. In that case, a police officer tried to get an arrestee to talk after he had asked for counsel by showing him a statement of charges that falsely indicated the possibility of the death penalty. Another officer immediately told the first that they could not talk to the suspect because he had asked for counsel, but thirty minutes later the suspect asked to talk. The Maryland Supreme Court held that the suspect's subsequent statements were inadmissible because his voluntariness was suspect. After briefing and argument, the Court must have decided that there was no issue worth resolving.
The Court also issued an order list with cert grants in two cases:
Beard v. Banks (04-1739): Does a prison policy that denies newspapers, magazines, and photographs to the most difficult inmates in the prison system in an effort to promote security and good behavior violate the First Amendment under the standards of Turner v. Safley and Overton v. Bazzetta? The Third Circuit said "yes": we're taking no bets on the Court's answer.
Woodford v. Ngo (05-416): Does a prisoner satisfy the Prison Litigation Reform Act's administrative exhaustion requirement by filing an untimely or otherwise procedurally defective administrative appeal? The Ninth Circuit said "yes"; again, we're taking no bets on the ultimate outcome.
The Court also invited the SG to weigh in on the petition in Air Conditioning and Refrigeration Institute v. Energy Resources and Development Comm'n (05-331), which politely asks: Does the Ninth Circuit's crabbed interpretation of Congress' express preemption provisions conflict with decisions of this Court and other courts of appeals by rewriting a federal statute in order to preserve state regulations, and thereby undermine the important federal interest in uniformity embodied in federal statutes?
Until next time, thanks for reading!
Ken & Kim

From the Appellate Practice Group at Wiggin and Dana. For more information, contact Kim Rinehart, Ken Heath, Aaron Bayer, or Jeff Babbin at 203-498-4400.