Agostini v. Felton
521 US 203 (Decided June 23, 1997)
At issue in this 5-4 decision was whether the injunction entered in 1985 after the Court's Aguilar decision, which prohibited public school teachers on the public payroll from coming into parochial schools in New York to teach mostly remedial subjects, should be lifted because, under FRCP 60(b)(5), it is "no longer equitable that the judgement (in 1985) should have prospective application." The Court concluded, with Justice O'Connor writing the opinion, that the Court's precedents in the intervening twelve years had so eroded the Aguilar holding that it must be overruled.
Thus, the effect of the decision would be to overrule both Aguilar and Grand Rapids v. Ball and permit prblic school teachers on the public payroll to enter into private schools to teach supplementary courses to the general curriculum of the parochial school. The four dissenters (Souter, Stevens, Ginsburg and Breyer) vigorously protested that this was not only reversing a clear line of precedents but ran afoul of the long-standing principle that public money could not be used directly to fund the operation of parochial education.
The Procedural Issue
It might be helpful at first to review the procedural issue, since the four dissenters, in a clear and forceful dissent by Justice Ginsburg, laid out the case why it was improper, as a matter of civil procedure, for the Court to have reached the merits of the case. After Aguilar in 1985, a federal judge entered an injunction forbidding the employment of public school teachers with public funds in the parochial school classroom. After Witters, Lamb's Chapel and Zobrest, the parties bound by the injunction filed motions asking for relief from the injunction under FRCP 60, as quoted above. The District Court refused, holding that there were no legal or factual grounds to do so.
The dissenters on the Court, led by Justice Ginsburg, made two points. First, she claimed that what was really afoot was a petition for reconsideration but such a petition was improper under the Supreme Court's own rules of operation (Rule 44). Second, she saw petitioners recharactizing their action as a petition for relief from final judgment. Everyone admitted that such a legal route was unprecedented, after a gap of 10-12 years. In any case, the District Court refused to grant the relief sought, and appeal was made to the US Supreme Court. Justice Ginsburg's point was that the standard of review for the case was clearly an "abuse of discretion" standard. Since there was no evidence that discretion was abused, the Court's only option was to affirm the denial of relief. In no way could the Court, procedurally, reach the merits of the issue.
Though the majority framed the procedural issue as separate from the merits issue, the two really were related because the majority thought that in order to determine whether procedural relief was in order, they had to consider whether the Court had expressly or implicitly eroded the holding in Aguilar in the intervening twelve years.
On the Merits
The majority thus moved directly to the merits of the case. Had, indeed, the Court in the intervening decade implicitly or explicitly overruled the premises of the Grand Rapids and Aguilar decisions? Justice O'Connor maintained that three presuppositions underlay these cases: (a) that public school instructors teaching in a private context might intentionally or inadvertently inculcate religion; (b) that a symbolic union of church and state was created by their presence in the parochial schools and (c) the payment of funds to these teachers subsidized the "primary religious mission of the institutions affected."
Her contention was that "our more recent cases have undermined the assumptions upon which Ball and Aguilar relied." She interpreted Zobrest (1993) to mean that the placement of public employees on parochial school grounds does not inevitably result in state-sponsored indoctrination. In dissent Justice Souter would attack this argument most pointedly by claiming that the public employee in Zobrest, an interpreter for the deaf, was only akin to a "hearing aid" and not a teacher as assumed by Aguilar.
Second, she claimed that the Court had departed from the second assumption--that having public school teachers in a private context created a "symbolic union" between church and state. Though not citing any precedent, she claimed that "We do not see any perceptible difference in the degree of symbolic union between a student receiving remedial instruction in a classroom on his sectarian school's campus and one receiving instruction in a van parked just at the school's curbside."
Finally, she maintained that the payments to teachers does not impermissbly finance religious indoctrination. This was perhaps her hardest hurdle to negotiate, since the dissenters pointed out that instruction in remedial reading was still instruction in reading, and that remedial math was still mathematics. Both of these subjects, of course, must be taught. Thus, the dissent would argue that the award of funds to teach these subjects meant that parochial school funds would be freed-up for use in express sectarian education.
Justice O'Connor claimed, in contrast, "we are also not persuaded that Title I services supplant the remedial instruction and guidance counseling already provided in New York City's schools." Dismissing Justice Souter's claims as "speculative," she concluded that the precedents of Witters and Zobrest showed that public aid could be given either to a person who made an independent choice on how to use it (Witters) or to a person who provided services in a parochial school (Zobrest).
Thus, the assumptions on which the earlier decisions relied were held to be overruled by subsequent cases. In such a situation the doctrine of stare decisis was not dispositive.
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long