It was an unfavorable decision with a bright silver lining.
That’s Michael Rebell’s assessment of Judge William Smith’s ruling this past week in Cook v. Raimondo, in which plaintiffs were seeking a ruling in the U.S. District Court for Rhode Island that all public school students have a right under the U.S. Constitution to an education that prepares them to participate in the nation’s democratic activities.
As lead counsel for the plaintiffs, Rebell, Professor of Law and Educational Practice and Executive Director of TC’s Center for Educational Equity, filed the suit in November 2018 on behalf a group of Rhode Island public school students and their families who seek to establish a right under the U.S. Constitution to an education adequate to prepare them to fully participate in their constitutional rights to “voting, serving on a jury, understanding economic, social, and political systems sufficiently to make informed choices, and to participate effectively in civic activities.”
In a ruling issued on October 13, Judge Smith granted a motion by attorneys for Rhode Island Governor Gina Raimondo, and other defendants in the case, saying that nothing in the U.S. Constitution explicitly guarantees the right to a civics education. But Smith’s decision also says that there should be some other remedy for the nation’s education system, which, in his view, is imperiling the future of American democracy.
The decision offers plaintiffs “a road map to the First Circuit Court of Appeals,” Rebell said in a statement issued after the ruling.
Even in denying plaintiffs’ petition, the ruling acknowledges the critical importance of the issues that they raised:
“This is what it all comes down to: we may choose to survive as a country by respecting our Constitution, the laws and norms of political and civic behavior, and by educating our children on civics, the rule of law, and what it really means to be an American, and what America means,” Judge Smith wrote. “Or, we may ignore these things at our and their peril. Unfortunately, this Court cannot, for the reasons explained below, deliver or dictate the solution — but, in denying that relief, I hope I can at least call out the need for it.”
This is what it all comes down to: we may choose to survive as a country by respecting our Constitution, the laws and norms of political and civic behavior, and by educating our children on civics, the rule of law, and what it really means to be an American, and what America means. Or, we may ignore these things at our and their peril. Unfortunately, this Court cannot, for the reasons explained below, deliver or dictate the solution — but, in denying that relief, I hope I can at least call out the need for it.”
— Judge William Smith, U.S. District Court for Rhode Island, in his decision in Cook v. Raimondo
The Judge also added that “while this lawsuit must be dismissed, it is worth pausing, before explaining why, to acknowledge the importance of Plaintiffs’ effort here. This case does not represent a wild-eyed effort to expand the reach of substantive due process, but rather a cry for help from a generation of young people who are destined to inherit a country which we — the generation currently in charge — are not stewarding well. What these young people seem to recognize is that American democracy is in peril. Its survival, and their ability to reap the benefit of living in a country with robust freedoms and rights, a strong economy, and a moral center protected by the rule of law is something that citizens must cherish, protect, and constantly work for. We would do well to pay attention to their plea.”
The plaintiffs argued that they were being unfairly denied an education adequate to prepare them to take full advantage of their rights and responsibilities in a democratic society. Judge Smith rejected that equal protection claim, writing that although the U.S. Supreme Court “left the door open just a crack” for re-consideration of its 1973 decision in San Antonio Ind’t Sch. Dist.v. Rodriguez that education is not a right guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution, he interpreted that “crack” to allow the courts to consider only a case that alleges that students are receiving no education whatsoever or an education that is “totally inadequate.”
He also rejected plaintiffs’ claim that a right to education for citizenship is “deeply rooted in the nation’s history and traditions,” writing that “[p]recedent clearly dictates that, while education as a civic ideal is no doubt deeply rooted in our country’s history, there is no right to civics education in the Constitution.” On the other hand, the Judge rejected a claim by the defendants, state and local officials, that the plaintiffs had no standing to sue, ruling that the students were entitled to bring the matter.
After clearing away the technical and procedural obstacles in the case, Rebell said the Judge “squarely recognized the federal court’s authority to review the students’ claim on the merits, namely whether a Constitutional right to civics education represented the ‘quantum of education’ that might be necessary for students to be prepared for the ‘meaningful exercise’ of their Constitutional rights. While Judge Smith found, to his regret, that he was unable to connect the legal dots to support this claim, his opinion articulates what is at stake for our country and our Constitution, leaving the Plaintiffs a road map to present their appeal to the First Circuit.
While Judge Smith found, to his regret, that he was unable to connect the legal dots to support this claim, his opinion articulates what is at stake for our country and our Constitution, leaving the Plaintiffs a road map to present their appeal to the First Circuit.
— Plaintiffs' lead counsel Michael Rebell, Professor of Law and Educational Practice and Executive Director of TC's Center for Educational Equity
The ruling, although not in the students’ favor is “the most eloquent and forceful justification I’ve ever read for why American democracy is in peril and why America may not ‘survive as a country’ if our students don’t obtain a civic education adequate to allow them to meet that challenge,” Rebell said.
In the final paragraph to his opinion, Judge Smith wrote:
“Plaintiffs should be commended for bringing this case. It highlights a deep flaw in our national education priorities and policies. The Court cannot provide the remedy Plaintiffs seek, but in denying that relief, the Court adds its voice to Plaintiffs’ in calling attention to their plea. Hopefully, others who have the power to address this need will respond appropriately.”
Rebell responded that “without a strong stance by the court, however, our policymakers and our school leaders – those who have the power to address these issues – will not be motivated or capable of addressing this issue appropriately. Judge Smith acknowledged that the U.S. Supreme Court in Rodriguez left the door open ‘a crack’ for reconsideration of aspects of that decision; we hope to convince the Court of Appeals that this open door does, in fact, permit the courts to rule on the critical issues raised by our case.”
Jennifer L. Wood, co-counsel for the plaintiffs and Executive Director of the Rhode Island Center for Justice, added: “Although Judge Smith did not rule that this case could move forward to trial, he thanked the courageous students and families whom we represent for fighting to improve their education and possibly save our democracy. Judge Smith said that this case ‘highlights a deep flaw in our national education priorities and policies.’ This case also highlights a deep and historical denial of education justice.”