Setting the Record Straight on Jeff Sessions and School Funding
On November 21, 2016, Thomas J. Sugrue published an op-ed titled, “Jeff Sessions’ Other Civil Rights Problem,” in the New York Times that I believe unfairly criticized Senator Sessions regarding the so-called “equity funding” case. Before my retirement, I served as an associate justice on the Alabama Supreme Court that decided four appellate matters arising from that case.
I also served as Senior Associate Justice and then Chief Justice when the Chief Justice was removed for not following a federal court order. In my decades of public service, I have seen public officials who did and who did not adhere to the rule of law.
With respect to equity funding case, public schools are often funded with local property taxes, leaving poorer counties with less funding than more affluent counties. Numerous groups filed lawsuits throughout the United States to ask courts to raise taxes or change spending to provide poorer schools with more funds.
Unmentioned in Mr. Sugrue’s article is how often these equity funding lawsuits lost and why. Champions of judicial taxing and spending first tried the U.S. Supreme Court. They lost in San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriquez, 411 U.S. 1 (1973), which held that reliance on property taxes to fund public schools does not violate the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution even if it causes disparities in funding between districts. Encouraging local control over schools bears a rational relationship to a legitimate state interest.
Next, the equity funding advocates filed suits in state court systems. Of the States that did not settle, a number held that taxing and spending questions were for the legislatures to decide, not the courts.
In this legal environment, two lawsuits were filed in Montgomery County, Alabama, in 1990, to challenge the legality of Alabama’s property tax funding system for local schools. On March 31, 1993, the trial court ruled that Alabama’s school funding violated the State Constitution.
The trial court’s order generated three appeals and an advisory opinion request to the Supreme Court of Alabama. Jeff Sessions became Attorney General of Alabama in 1995 and filed briefs in the case that was decided in 1997. Ultimately, the Alabama Supreme Court agreed with Attorney General Sessions and dismissed the equity funding case. Courts in Pennsylvania, Maine, Florida, Illinois, Wisconsin and Oregon all rejected the judicial tax and spend arguments.
Mr. Sugrue might be right in stating the Alabama’s schools have funding problems. Many state school systems do.
But he is wrong in his critique of Jeff Sessions. Attorney General Sessions did his duty by defending his state, advocating consistently with the binding constitution of his state, and arguing for the basic American proposition that elected legislators levy taxes and spend tax revenues, not courts. That dedication to the rule of law will serve him well as the Attorney General of the United States.
Mr. Houston served as a Justice on the Supreme Court of Alabama from 1985-2005.