By Linda Greenhouse, The New York Times
(Washington, Nov. 14) - The Supreme Court ruled in a closely watched
education case on Monday that parents who disagree with a school
system's special-education plan for their child have the legal
burden of proving that the plan will not provide the "appropriate"
education to which federal law entitles all children with
The 6-to-2 decision, in a case from a Washington suburb, Montgomery
County, Md., affirmed a ruling last year by the United States Court
of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, in Richmond, Va. Chief Justice
John G. Roberts Jr. did not take part in the case, which was argued
on Oct. 5, because his former law firm represented the school
The decision, which is likely to affect hundreds of cases a year,
was a disappointment for parents and disability rights groups who
argued that making them prove that special-education programs were
inadequate gave school districts little incentive to address their
"Until now, there has been impetus for both sides to really mediate
and work things out," said Wendy Byrnes, a parent advocate at the
Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund in Berkeley, Calif.,
who added that most cases are settled in mediation. "This decision
tips the scale in the district's favor, so that a school district
will not be so motivated to work something out."
The National School Boards Association praised the decision, saying
it would allow districts to "spend the money and resources on
educating children, not legal proceedings."
The Bush administration had originally entered the case on behalf of
the parents, arguing that under the Individuals With Disabilities
Education Act, a district had the burden of proving the adequacy of
a student's "individualized education program" rather than the other
But when the case reached the Supreme Court, the administration
switched sides, arguing that the court should apply the "traditional
rule" in civil cases that "the party initiating and seeking relief"
bears the burden of proof. This was the argument that Justice Sandra
Day O'Connor accepted in her majority opinion.
There are nearly seven million students in the country who receive
special education services under the Individuals With Disabilities
Education Act, which in several earlier forms dates from 1970. To
fulfill the law's requirement to provide a "free appropriate public
education," school districts work with parents to develop an
individual program for each student with a disability. Depending on
the child's needs, the program can provide anything from a weekly
session with a speech teacher to placement at taxpayer expense in a
private residential program.
When parents and school officials cannot agree, the law provides for
a "due process hearing" before an administrative law judge or other
impartial decision maker. When the evidence on each side is roughly
equal, the allocation of the burden of proof can make all the
difference in the outcome of the hearing. Yet Congress has never
specified on which side the burden falls, and federal courts around
the country have reached opposite conclusions.
The case the Supreme Court decided, Schaffer v. Weast, No. 04-698, began in 1997, when Jocelyn and Martin Schaffer took their son Brian out of seventh grade in a private school and sought a placement for him in the Montgomery County system. Brian had been given diagnoses of several learning disabilities.
The tangled course of the case demonstrates the importance of the
burden of proof.
The Schaffers disapproved of the options that the school district
offered in two public middle schools, finding the class sizes too
large. They enrolled their son in another private school and sought
tuition reimbursement from the county. After a three-day hearing, an
administrative law judge said the case was close, but ruled for the
school system on the ground that the parents had the burden of proof.
The Schaffers took their case to Federal District Court in
Greenbelt, Md., where Judge Peter J. Messitte ruled that the
administrative law judge had been wrong about the burden of proof
and sent the case back for a new hearing. This time, the judge ruled
for the parents. Eventually, the case reached the Fourth Circuit,
which in a 2-to-1 decision placed the burden of proof on the parents
and ruled for the school district.
In her decision upholding that ruling, Justice O'Connor said
that "absent some reason to believe that Congress intended
otherwise," the burden of proof should be "where it usually falls,
upon the party seeking relief." On the infrequent occasions when a
school district seeks a hearing, that means that the district would
bear the burden.
Because Maryland law is silent on the question, the court did not
have occasion to rule on whether states could decide on their own,
as several have, to place the burden on the school district.
Connecticut, Virginia and seven other states filed a brief with the
court urging the justices to leave the issue up to the states as a
matter of federalism.
Montgomery County has 17,000 students receiving special education
services. Just a few dozen cases a year reach administrative
Jerry D. Weast, the school superintendent, said in an interview that
the decision was significant nonetheless for clarifying the law and
establishing the presumption that school officials are acting
Mr. Weast said he attached special importance to a concurring
opinion by Justice John Paul Stevens, who said that the legal issue
was close but that on balance "I believe that we should presume that
public school officials are properly performing their difficult
responsibilities under this important statute."
Justices Anthony M. Kennedy, Antonin Scalia, David H. Souter and
Clarence Thomas also joined the majority opinion.
Justices Stephen G. Breyer and Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote separate
dissenting opinions. Justice Ginsburg quoted at length from the
dissenting opinion filed in the Fourth Circuit by Judge J. Michael
"The party with the 'bigger guns' also has better access to
information, greater expertise, and an affirmative obligation to
provide the contested services," Judge Luttig wrote in explaining
why he thought the district should bear the burden.
Justice Breyer said Congress had left the matter to the states.
Brian Schaffer, the student at the center of the case, eventually
returned to the public school system and graduated from high school
in 2003. He is now in college.
Nonetheless, Jocelyn Schaffer, his mother, explained that she
pursued the case because "I felt the pain of other parents in a
"There are so many parents who don't have the means to send their
kids to private schools and what they're offered by the public
schools is inadequate," Ms. Schaffer said.
Karen W. Arenson and Gary Gately contributed reporting for this
Copyright © 2005 by The New York Times Co. Reprinted with permission.
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