Chemerinsky: Civil rights advocates win important victories at SCOTUS

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U.S. Supreme Court


Erwin Chemerinsky

Erwin Chemerinsky.

Civil rights plaintiffs won two important victories last week in the U.S. Supreme Court.

In one case, the court held that those who are wrongly detained have a claim under the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution. In the other, the court ruled that under a federal statute, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, school systems have the duty to provide students with disabilities an educational program that is reasonably calculated to enable a child to make progress appropriate in light of the child’s circumstances. In each case, the Supreme Court reversed lower court decisions that had denied relief. Although the cases arise in different contexts, together they are important victories for civil rights plaintiffs.

Manuel v. City of Joliet

Elijah Manuel was wrongly incarcerated for 48 days. He was a passenger in a car that was stopped for failing to signal a turn. Manuel alleged that one of the officers dragged him from the car, called him a racial slur, and kicked and punched him as he lay on the ground. He was searched, and a bottle of pills was found. Manuel said that they were vitamins. A field test came back negative for the presence of illegal drugs. Nonetheless, Manuel was arrested. A technician again tested the pills, which came back negative. But the technician lied in his report and said that one of the pills was “found to be … positive for the probable presence of Ecstasy.” One of the arresting officers wrote in his report that “from [his] training and experience, [he] knew the pills to be Ecstasy.”

A criminal complaint was filed against Manuel based on these allegations. A judge approved the charges, and Manuel was jailed. The Illinois police laboratory reexamined the seized pills and it issued a report concluding that they contained no controlled substances. But even after these results, Manuel was kept in jail for another month. All together, he spent 48 days in pretrial detention.

Manuel filed a civil suit under 42 U.S.C. §1983. The federal district court dismissed the suit as time-barred because it was filed two years after his release from custody, though not two years after his arrest. The district court also dismissed the case, saying that pretrial detention following the start of legal process cannot give rise to a Fourth Amendment claim. The Chicago-based 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed.

The Supreme Court, in a 6-2 decision, reversed. The court held (PDF) that wrongful pretrial detention violates the Fourth Amendment, whether it occurs before or after a judicial process. Justice Elena Kagan wrote for the court: “And those constitutional protections apply even after the start of ‘legal process’ in a criminal case—here, that is, after the judge’s determination of probable cause. Accordingly, we hold today that Manuel may challenge his pretrial detention on the ground that it violated the Fourth Amendment (while we leave all other issues, including one about that claim’s timeliness, to the court below).”

What was done to Manuel was clearly unconstitutional. He was held in jail for 48 days without probable cause. The Constitution must provide a remedy for such wrongdoing, and the court properly found this under the Fourth Amendment. The case is significant because it provides a constitutional remedy for those like Manuel who are subject to unlawful detention.

The court left open the issue as to when the claim accrues—at the time of arrest or at the time of release. The case was remanded on that question and well could return to the Supreme Court after the lower court rules.

Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act creates a right to a “free appropriate public education” for children with disabilities. A state that receives federal funds and is covered by the IDEA must provide a disabled child with such special education and related services “in conformity with the [child’s] individualized education program.” The question is: What is the legal standard for determining the adequacy of an individualized education program? In Board of Education of Hendrick Hudson Central School District, Westchester Cty. v. Rowley, in 1982, the court refused to adopt a standard for determining “when handicapped children are receiving sufficient educational benefits to satisfy the requirements of the act.” The result has been great confusion in the lower courts as to the appropriate standard for evaluating individualized educational programs.

Endrew F. was diagnosed with autism at age 2. He was a student in the Douglas County School District from preschool through fourth grade. In accordance with the IDEA, each year an IEP was developed for Endrew. By the fourth grade, Endrew’s parents were unhappy that he was not making more progress. The IEP for each year was essentially the same as for the prior one. Being dissatisfied with this, Endrew’s parents enrolled him for fifth grade in the Firefly Autism House, a private school. Endrew made great progress there, far better than he had been achieving in the public school.

When Endrew’s parents met with representatives of the Douglas County School District, their IEP for Endrew for sixth grade was no different than it had been before. Endrew’s parents filed a complaint with the Colorado Department of Education seeking reimbursement for Endrew’s tuition at Firefly. The department denied the request based on a recommendation from an administrative law judge. The federal district court affirmed, saying that the annual modifications to Endrew’s IEP objectives were “sufficient to show a pattern of, at the least, minimal progress.” The Denver-based 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed and said that all that was required was instruction and services furnished to children with disabilities that is calculated to confer “some educational benefit.”

The U.S. Supreme Court unanimously reversed in an opinion (PDF) by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. The court found the lower court’s “minimal progress” standard inadequate to meet the requirements of the IDEA.

Chief Justice Roberts stated: “To meet its substantive obligation under the IDEA, a school must offer an IEP reasonably calculated to enable a child to make progress appropriate in light of the child’s circumstances.” The court said: “The IEP must aim to enable the child to make progress. After all, the essential function of an IEP is to set out a plan for pursuing academic and functional advancement.”

Admittedly, this is still an ambiguous standard. What is “appropriate” is inevitably an individualized determination. But it is much more demanding that than adopted by the 10th Circuit. As the court explained: “Of course this describes a general standard, not a formula. But whatever else can be said about it, this standard is markedly more demanding than the ‘merely more than de minimis’ test applied by the 10th Circuit.”

The case is a significant victory for children with disabilities. It provides their parents, and if needed their lawyers, the basis for demanding IEPs that provide for substantial progress. It is a decision that can make a real difference in many children’s lives.

A very significant part of the docket of federal district courts is comprised of civil rights cases. These two decisions are important because each will affect many other cases and allow a remedy for those who have been hurt in these very different contexts.


Erwin Chemerinsky is Dean and Distinguished Professor of Law, and Raymond Pryke Professor of First Amendment Law at the University of California, Irvine School of Law. He is an expert in constitutional law, federal practice, civil rights and civil liberties, and appellate litigation. He’s the author of seven books, including The Case Against the Supreme Court (Viking, 2014).




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