Michael Martinez

Colorado Car Tax (er, ‘FASTER’ vehicle registration “fee”) hike legal challenge loses first round in Denver District Court

The Colorado Car Tax (er, “vehicle registration fee”) increase passed in 2009 (SB108, the so-called “FASTER” bill) is quite possibly THE most unpopular tax increase in Colorado history – made all the more repugnant by how it became law (exploiting a 2008 Colorado Supreme Court ruling which declared that “fees” don’t count as “taxes” to circumvent the constitutional requirement (under Colorado Constitution Article X, Section 20 – Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights, a.k.a. TABOR) to receive prior voter approval for any ‘policy change resulting in net revenue gain’ to the state).

After two years of legislative inaction failed to repeal or roll back the unconstitutional and unpopular tax increase, the ‘FASTER’ Colorado Car Tax was challenged in court as a violation of the Colorado state Constitution (specifically, Colorado Constitution Article X, Section 20 – Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights, TABOR).

Denver District Court Judge Michael Martinez (already notorious for his ruling in the Douglas County School Choice case) recently (19 July) ruled against the TABOR plaintiffs (and Colorado taxpayers), after holding a 2-day trial in May following his earlier rejection of a Motion for Summary Judgment.

In its ruling, following a two-day trial, the district court held that the CBE is an exempted enterprise and its assessment is a “fee” and not a “tax.”  Mountain States Legal Foundation press release, “Taxpayer Group’s Challenge To State Bridge Tax Rejected

However, to arrive at that conclusion, Judge Martinez ignored both clear constitutional language and binding Colorado Supreme Court precedent on both the nature of an “exempted enterprise” and the definition of a “fee” under the Colorado Constitution (Article X, Section 20).

Judge Martinez erroneously concluded that the charge to Colorado motor vehicle owners payable to the “Colorado Bridge Enterprise” was a “fee” rather than a “tax” regardless of whether the vehicle in question ever crossed ANY bridge in Colorado (much less any of the “168 bridges… identified as eligible for CBE funding” or the 56 bridges transferred to CBE “ownership”).  Importantly, the definition of “user fee” includes a nexus to the “user” – irrespective of Martinez’ sophistry with regard to “frequency” or specific “calibration” of use, the lack of ANY nexus of “user” to “fee” clearly exposes the charge as an unconstitutional and illegally-imposed tax.  Martinez is flat-out wrong in his assertion that

a nexus between an individual’s use and the permissibility of a user fee is not required in Colorado.  (TABOR Foundation v Colorado Bridge Enterprise TRIAL COURT ORDER, at 10)

Even the notoriously expansive Barber v. Ritter ruling by the Mullarkey Court upheld the user-fee nexus, stating that only when

the primary purpose for the charge is to finance a particular service utilized by those who must pay the charge, then the charge is a “fee.” [Barber v. Ritter; emphasis added]

Martinez similarly errs in asserting that “the CBE is a self-supporting business under the TABOR statute.”  Not only does the CBE illegally collect tax dollars (paid by vehicle owners to the county clerks as part of the vehicle registration process), but it also receives grant money from state and local government in excess of the 10% threshold to qualify as an “exempted enterprise” under TABOR.

In fact, the entire existence of the CBE is a farce, since the personnel constituting the “enterprise” are identical with the Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) board.  The CBE is nothing more than a legal fiction specifically designed to circumvent TABOR – and illegally steal (er, “extract”) money from Colorado taxpayers (er, “fee”-payers).

Fortunately, Judge Martinez – among the most-overturned judges on the Denver District Court – does not get the final word, as an appeal of this execrable ruling to the Colorado Court of Appeals (and, most likely, ultimately to the Colorado Supreme Court) is inevitable – and imminent.

Read more about the TABOR Foundation v. Colorado Bridge Enterprise case in these documents:

Clear The Bench Colorado will, with your support, continue to promote transparency and accountability in the Colorado judiciary, informing the public to increase awareness of the substantial public policy implications of an unrestrained activism and political agendas in the courts.  We will continue to work to educate voters and provide information of relevance related to the judicial branch, and to provide useful and substantive evaluations of judicial performance.

However, we can’t do it alone –  we need your continued support; via your comments (Sound Off!) and, yes, your contributions.  Freedom isn’t free -nor is it always easy to be a Citizen, not a subject.

Ultimately, though – it’s worth the effort.

Colorado Court of Appeals reverses lower court, upholds constitutionality of Douglas County School Choice program

The Colorado Court of Appeals reversed a lower court ruling and upheld the constitutionality of the Douglas County School Choice program in a ruling issued today (Thursday, 28 February 2013).

The Colorado Court of Appeals ruling in the case (Court of Appeals Nos. 11CA1856 & 11CA1857, “Taxpayers for Public Education v. Douglas County Board of Education”) struck down the Denver District court ruling that had permanently enjoined implementation of the Douglas County “Choice Scholarship Program” (a program providing scholarships for tuition at private or charter schools of the parents’ choice) on claims that the program violated the Colorado Public School Finance Act of 1994 and various provisions of the Colorado Constitution.  The higher court rejected both the plaintiffs’ standing to bring the suit in the first place, and the plaintiffs’ claims of constitutional violations – a resounding rebuttal to the lower court:

We conclude that plaintiffs do not have standing to seek redress for a claimed violation of the Act, and that the CSP does not violate any of the constitutional provisions on which plaintiffs rely.  Therefore, we reverse the district court’s judgment and remand the case for entry of judgment in defendants’ favor.

The court’s ruling does not come as a surprise (indeed, the Clear The Bench Colorado analysis of last November’s oral arguments before the Court of Appeals forecast a win for the appellants) but the extent of the higher court’s repudiation of Denver District Court Judge Michael Martinez is striking, particularly on the issue of the plaintiffs’ standing to bring suit under the School Finance Act:

The district court recited these factors but did not engage in any substantive analysis of them. Instead, the court conclusorily ruled that certain plaintiffs’ status as District students and parents of District students “confers a legal interest in the enforcement of the statutes enumerated in their claims.” In so ruling, the district court erred.

There is nothing in the language of the Act remotely suggesting that private citizens or groups have a right to seek judicial enforcement of its provisions.

The appeals court addressed – and resoundingly rejected – each of the plaintiffs claims alleging constitutional violations:

For clarity of analysis, we divide plaintiffs’ claims into three groups: (1) claims alleging violations of statutory and constitutional provisions which concern state schools generally – the Act and article IX, sections 2, 3, and 15; (2) claims alleging violations of constitutional provisions which concern aid to or support of religion and religious organizations – article II, section 4, and article IX, sections 7 and 8; and (3) the claim alleging a violation of article V, section 34, which concerns appropriations generally and appropriations to religious organizations specifically.

Claims based on the School Finance Act were rejected due to the plaintiffs lack of standing to bring a complaint in court, as noted above.

Claims that the “Choice Scholarship Program” violated the Colorado Constitution Article IX, Section 2 (“Thorough and Uniform System of Free Public Schools”) were also rejected by the Court of Appeals.

Interestingly, the court affirmed the role and responsibility of the elected school board as the presumptive constitutional authority in determining educational structure and content:

Pursuant to article IX, section 15 of the Colorado Constitution, the General Assembly created local school districts governed by boards of education. The directors of the boards are elected by qualified district electors, and “have control of instruction in the public schools of their respective districts.”

The court broadly rejected the plaintiffs claims of an Article IX Section 2 violation in no uncertain terms:

Plaintiffs misapprehend the constitutional mandate. It requires that a thorough and uniform system of free elementary through high school education be made available to students between the ages of six and twenty-one. See Lujan v. Colo. State Bd. of Educ., 649 P.2d 1005, 1025 (Colo. 1982) (this provision “is satisfied if thorough and uniform educational opportunities are available through state action in each school district”);

It plainly is not violated where a local school district decides to provide educational opportunities in addition to the free system the constitution requires. [emphasis added]

The court similarly rejected claims of a violation of Article IX, Section 3 (“Use of the Public School Fund”):

Article IX, section 3 requires only that money from the public school fund be “expended in the maintenance of the schools of the state” and “distributed amongst the several counties and school districts of the state, in such manner as may be prescribed by law.” It plainly applies to distributions made by the state, not local districts. And it requires distributions to the counties and school districts. Upon distribution by the state to the counties and school districts, the money from the fund belongs to the counties and school districts. Craig v. People in Interest of Hazard, 89 Colo. 139, 144-45, 299 P. 1064, 1066 (1931). [emphasis added]

The court similarly rejected claims of a violation of Article X, Section 15 (“Local Control”):

Further, the provision does not relate to instruction in private schools. As discussed above, participating private schools retain their character as private, not public, schools. It follows that article IX, section 15 does not apply to the CSP.

The court directed a significant amount of attention to plaintiffs claims that the CSP violated constitutional provisions restricting state support of religious institutions – and likewise rejected those claims:

The Colorado Constitution contains a number of provisions addressing the relationship between state government and citizens, on the one hand, and religion generally and religious institutions, on the other hand. Some of these provisions pertain to support for religion and religious institutions. Four are at issue here: article II, section 4; article V, section 34;12 and article IX, sections 7 and 8.

Based on analysis of the Colorado constitutional language alone, the court determined

we conclude that the CSP does not violate any of the subject provisions.

In order:

1. Article II, § 4 – Required Attendance or Support

Citing a similar grant program for higher education, since the CSP was “designed for the benefit of the student, not the educational institution” and “is available to all District students and to any private school which meets the neutral eligibility criteria” it did not violate the constitutional prohibition on state support of religious institutions.  The court further noted that inquiries into “the degree to which religious tenets and beliefs are included in participating private schools’ educational programs – is no longer constitutionally permissible” and, “Doing so violates the First Amendment,” concluding, “Simply put, a government may not choose among eligible institutions “on the basis of intrusive judgments regarding contested questions of religious belief or practice.”

The court rejected the plaintiffs claims that the CSP “required attendance” at religious instruction on its face, stating:

the fact remains that the CSP does not compel anyone to do anything, much less attend religious services. No student is compelled to participate in the CSP or, having been accepted to participate, to attend any particular participating private school. To the extent students would attend religious services, they would do so as a result of parents’ voluntary choices. Article II, section 4 clearly does not proscribe such choices.

2. Article IX, § 7 – No Aid to Religious Organizations

The district court ruled that the CSP violates this provision essentially for the same reasons it found a violation of article II, section 4. And essentially for the same reasons we have concluded that the CSP does not violate article II, section 4, we conclude that it does not violate article IX, section 7.2

Since the CSP “is intended to benefit students and their parents, and any benefit to the participating schools is incidental…”

“Such a remote and incidental benefit does not constitute . . . aid to the institution itself within the meaning of Article IX, Section 7.”  Zelman, 536 U.S. at 652

The court noted that “The CSP is neutral toward religion,and funds make their way to private schools with religious affiliation by means of personal choices of students’ parents.”

The majority opinion even gets in a dig at the dissenting opinion on this issue:

That reasoning, which is typical of the reasoning in the cases on which the dissent relies, is flatly at odds with our supreme court’s reasoning in Americans United, in which the court deemed the neutral character of the grant programs as essentially determinative.

3. Article IX, § 8 – Religion in Public Schools

The Court of Appeals noted that “this provision plainly applies to “public educational institution[s]” and “public school[s]” and rejected the district court’s (and plaintiffs) convoluted attempts to construct a public character for the private schools within the CSP.

The district court failed sufficiently to account for the fact that attendance at any of the participating private schools is not required by the CSP; such attendance is by parental choice. Moreover, as discussed above, participation in the CSP does not transform private schools into public schools.

Finally, the court’s ruling addressed plaintiffs’ claims that other constitutional provisions were violated by the school choice program.

The Denver District court ruling held that the CSP violated the Colorado Constitution’s Article V, § 34 – Prohibited Appropriations by interpreting a payment of state funds to private schools as an “appropriation” to “entities not under absolute state control” – including entities with a religious character.  The Court of Appeals rejected the district court judge’s reasoning, noting that “[t]he district court misconstrued the provision.”

Article V, section 34 is part of article V of the Colorado Constitution, which deals with the structure and powers of the General Assembly. See, e.g., art. V, § 1(1). Article V includes two provisions dealing with appropriations, sections 32 and 34. The appropriations encompassed by those sections clearly are appropriations by the General Assembly itself.

Since the funds are actually allocated by the school district, NOT the state directly,

No such disbursement would occur under the CSP. The General Assembly appropriates state money for elementary and secondary education to the Colorado Department of Education, which in turn distributes it to local school districts in the form of total per pupil revenue. At that point, ownership of the funds passes to the local school districts. Craig, 89 Colo. at 144-45, 299 P. at 1066; see § 22-54-104(1)(a). The District’s expenditure of funds under the CSP, therefore, does not constitute an appropriation by the General Assembly.

Since “the purpose of the [CSP] is to aid students and parents, not sectarian institutions.”

Any benefit to the participating private school is incidental, occasioned by the individual choices of students’ parents.

Conclusion:

Plaintiffs failed to carry their burden of proving the unconstitutionality of the CSP beyond a reasonable doubt, or by any other potentially applicable standard. None of them have standing to assert a claim under the Act. Accordingly, the district court’s judgment cannot stand.

The judgment is reversed, and the case is remanded to the district court for entry of judgment in defendants’ favor.

Since both sides in the case have signaled their intent to appeal if not satisfied with the verdict, the ultimate resolution of the case will fall to the Colorado Supreme Court – most likely (the wheels of justice grind slowly) in another year or more.

 Additional References:

Clear The Bench Colorado‘s analysis of oral arguments before the Colorado Court of Appeals
(20 November 2012)

For another analysis of last November’s oral arguments (with more emphasis on policy implications over legal issues), read Education Policy Analyst Ben DeGrow’s superb summary.

Click here for a comprehensive review of the Douglas County Choice Scholarship Program (including program information, video and audio interview and news clips, news and commentary highlights and links to many legal documents in the case)

Bottom Line:
The Douglas County case also touches upon important constitutional issues such the separation of powers between branches and levels of government, establishment of religion, and collection and allocation of tax dollars, but ultimately comes down to a very basic and fundamental issue:
who decides how to educate Colorado’s children?

Clear The Bench Colorado believes that the decision should be in the hands of parents – NOT in the hands of the courts.

Cases such as this highlight the importance of fair and impartial courts and of judges who exercise proper restraint (in accordance with the rule of law) in considering (let alone deciding) issues of policy more appropriate for the elected, representative branches of government.  Our courts have an important – even vital – role to play in our society and system of government.  This is not it.

Clear The Bench Colorado will, with your support, continue to promote transparency and accountability in the Colorado judiciary, informing the public to increase awareness of the substantial public policy implications of an unrestrained activism and political agendas in the courts.  We will continue to work to educate voters and provide information of relevance related to the judicial branch, and to provide useful and substantive evaluations of judicial performance.

However, we can’t do it alone –  we need your continued support; via your comments (Sound Off!) and, yes, your contributions.  Freedom isn’t free -nor is it always easy to be a Citizen, not a subject.

Ultimately, though – it’s worth the effort.

2012 Year in Review: Colorado Courts Continue to Play Politics

Colorado Courts Continue to Play Politics in 2012…

Another tumultuous year has come and gone for the Colorado judiciary – and once again, Colorado Citizens and taxpayers have been hammered by the gavels of Colorado judges pounding their personal preferences over the will of the people – and the rule of law.

2012 saw the advancement of a  frivolous, groundless, and vexatious politically-motivated lawsuit  attempting to overturn a Colorado Constitutional Amendment (the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights, colloquially known as “TABOR”) through the Federal courts (with oral arguments on a Motion to Dismiss in February, and proceeding to trial on a ruling in July).  The District Court judge still has not issued a ruling in the case, but whatever the ruling, the case is almost certain to be appealed, and may ultimately end up before the U.S. Supreme Court.

Some good news came from the Colorado judiciary in March, as the Colorado Supreme Court upheld the Colorado Court of Appeals in striking down the CU Gun Ban.  Unfortunately, the University of Colorado administration introduced policies designed to circumvent the ruling shortly thereafter, and the self-defense rights of Colorado citizens within the CU demesne continue to be threatened with the backing of many (if not most) of the CU Regents.

More good news in April, as a (Federal) court struck down Colorado’s unconstitutional “Amazon Tax” (as predicted by Clear The Bench Colorado Director Matt Arnold in testimony before its passage in 2010).

In May, the Colorado Car Tax (a.k.a. FASTER vehicle registration “fee”) was challenged in court as a violation of the state Constitution (the case is still winding its way through the courts).

In September, the Colorado Supreme Court rejected Ward Churchill’s attempt to force the University of Colorado to reinstate him (Churchill recently announced his intent to appeal all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court).

Clear The Bench Colorado helped Colorado voters to “Know Your Judge” with substantive evaluations of judicial performance prior to the November elections – the ONLY source of reliable, substantive information on judges appearing on the ballot.

Remaining statewide elections were significantly impacted (if not effectively pre-determined outright) by the results of the Colorado Supreme Court’s December 2011 rulings on the reapportionment of state legislative districts – leading to lopsided majorities for Democrats in both chambers of the state legislature, despite actually receiving fewer votes overall.

Colorado courts continued to be a central battlefield for Education policy, as the ‘Lobato’ case advanced to the Colorado Supreme Court in the “Super Bowl of school funding litigation” and the Douglas County school choice voucher program case advanced to the Colorado Court of Appeals.  (Interestingly, the Denver District Court judges involved in each case – Judge Sheila Rappaport in the ‘Lobato’ case, and Judge Michael Martinez in the Douglas County school choice case – are both scheduled to appear on the 2014 ballot).

Cases such as Lobato (particularly Rappaport’s biased ruling) and the politicized nature of the court’s involvement in the congressional redistricting and state legislative reapportionment cases – highlight the importance of fair and impartial courts and of judges who exercise proper restraint (in accordance with the rule of law) in considering – let alone deciding – issues of policy more appropriate for the elected, representative branches of government.  Our courts have an important – even vital – role to play in our society and system of government. Deciding issues of policy – instead of fairly and impartially upholding the law – is not it.

Clear The Bench Colorado will, with your support, continue to promote transparency and accountability in the Colorado judiciary, informing the public to increase awareness of the substantial public policy implications of an unrestrained activism and political agendas in the courts.  We will continue to work to educate voters and provide information of relevance related to the judicial branch, and to provide useful and substantive evaluations of judicial performance.

However, we can’t do it alone –  we need your continued support; via your comments (Sound Off!) and, yes, your contributions.  Freedom isn’t free -nor is it always easy to be a Citizen, not a subject.

Ultimately, though – it’s worth the effort.

Colorado Court of Appeals to hear oral arguments in Douglas County school voucher program case Monday (19 Nov 2012)

The Colorado Court of Appeals will hear oral arguments Monday afternoon (19 November 2012) on the Douglas County school voucher program that was stopped (via permanent injunction) by Denver District Court Judge Michael Martinez in a controversial ruling (Larue v. Douglas County) in August 2011.

In that ruling, Judge Martinez decreed that the Douglas County Choice Scholarship Program violated multiple sections of the Colorado Constitution (Article IX, Section 7 Aid to Private Schools, Churches, Sectarian Purpose, Forbidden, Article IX, Section 8 Religious Test and Race Discrimination Forbidden Sectarian Tenets, and Article II, Section 4, Religious Freedom) as well as the state school financing act.

Martinez appears to have disregarded governing constitutional precedent established in the 2002 Zelman v. Simmons-Harris case, which established the constitutionality of school vouchers even for schools with a religious component if the choice is up to the parent:

This Court’s jurisprudence makes clear that a government aid program is not readily subject to challenge under the Establishment Clause if it is neutral with respect to religion and provides assistance directly to a broad class of citizens who, in turn, direct government aid to religious schools wholly as a result of their own genuine and independent private choice. See, e.g., Mueller v. Allen, 463 U. S. 388. Under such a program, government aid reaches religious institutions only by way of the deliberate choices of numerous individual recipients. The incidental advancement of a religious mission, or the perceived endorsement of a religious message, is reasonably attributable to the individual aid recipients not the government, whose role ends with the disbursement of benefits.

A contemporaneous Colorado Springs Gazette editorial (“Backward voucher ruling favors oppression“) was a scathing indictment of Denver District judge Michael Martinez’ ruling to stop the Douglas County school choice program via permanent injunction, calling it “a decision to segregate and oppress,” also noting that voucher programs do NOT violate the U.S. Constitution’s Establishment Clause:

 In Colorado, education money attaches to children. With each child who enrolls, a public school gets more than $6,000 for the year.

Vouchers issue the money to parents. At that point, the money belongs to the parent and child. They are free to spend it at almost any accredited school, religious or otherwise.

The key point – that educational choice belongs to the parent, not to the government (especially, not to the courts) – bears repeating:

 Once state money is converted to a voucher and given to a child, it’s no longer the government’s. It belongs to the child, who is subject to the will of a parent or guardian. Parents and guardians have the right to choose whether their children are schooled in secular or religious settings.

Bottom Line:
The Douglas County case also touches upon important constitutional issues such the separation of powers between branches and levels of government, establishment of religion, and collection and allocation of tax dollars, but ultimately comes down to a very basic and fundamental issue:
who decides how to educate Colorado’s children?

Clear The Bench Colorado believes that the decision should be in the hands of parents – NOT in the hands of the courts.

Cases such as this highlight the importance of fair and impartial courts and of judges who exercise proper restraint (in accordance with the rule of law) in considering (let alone deciding) issues of policy more appropriate for the elected, representative branches of government.  Our courts have an important – even vital – role to play in our society and system of government.  This is not it.

Clear The Bench Colorado will, with your support, continue to promote transparency and accountability in the Colorado judiciary, informing the public to increase awareness of the substantial public policy implications of an unrestrained activism and political agendas in the courts.  We will continue to work to educate voters and provide information of relevance related to the judicial branch, and to provide useful and substantive evaluations of judicial performance.

However, we can’t do it alone –  we need your continued support; via your comments (Sound Off!) and, yes, your contributions.  Freedom isn’t free -nor is it always easy to be a Citizen, not a subject.

Ultimately, though – it’s worth the effort.

Last Week in Lobato Trial – will courts decree new school taxes?

The Lobato v. Colorado school funding lawsuit enters its fifth and (likely) final week in trial court in Denver this Monday – with plaintiffs seeking

billions of dollars of additional funding for schools, though it’s unclear where that extra money would come from. (Denver Post, “Colorado school funding trial enters likely final week“)

This educational-funding lawsuit (seeking to force even higher state educational spending by court order) represents yet another abuse of the courts for the pursuit of political ends – unfortunately aided and abetted by an all-too-complicit (and highly political) majority on the Colorado Supreme Court, which previously (October 2009) overturned two lower courts which had (correctly) dismissed the case (Lobato v. Colorado) as non-justiciable (meaning, a policy issue not to be decided by the courts).

Despite the lack of correlation between spending and performance – and despite the failure of court-imposed school funding increases in several states (including Colorado neighbors Kansas and Wyoming) to achieve increased school performance, despite revenue and spending increases -

In Colorado, where per-pupil spending was $8,782 in 2008-09, students often outperformed students in Wyoming, where funding – following a school finance lawsuit – was $14,268 per pupil.

plaintiffs continue to seek additional money that the state simply does not have.  A court ruling in favor of the plaintiffs could not only precipitate a constitutional crisis, but lead to a fiscal and budgetary train wreck of epic proportions.  Indeed, as Governor Hickenlooper correctly points out, the consequences for Colorado would be “devastating.

If the courts are able to decide “the future of public education” by judicial fiat, Colorado citizens will have lost all control and accountability over our schools.

The issue of educational funding is NOT one for the courts, but rather for the legislature and/or local school boards. The Lobato lawsuit is a fiscal, legal, and political disaster in the making.

Read more about the Lobato school funding case in these recent articles:

These cases highlight the importance of fair and impartial courts and of judges who exercise proper restraint (in accordance with the rule of law) in considering – let alone deciding – issues of policy more appropriate for the elected, representative branches of government.  Our courts have an important – even vital – role to play in our society and system of government.  This is not it.

Clear The Bench Colorado will, with your support, continue to promote transparency and accountability in the Colorado judiciary, informing the public to increase awareness of the substantial public policy implications of an unrestrained activism and political agendas in the courts.  We will continue to work to educate voters and provide information of relevance related to the judicial branch, and to provide useful and substantive evaluations of judicial performance.

However, we can’t do it alone –  we need your continued support; via your comments (Sound Off!) and, yes, your contributions.  Freedom isn’t free -nor is it always easy to be a Citizen, not a subject.

Ultimately, though – it’s worth the effort.

Monday Media Review: School choice, school funding lawsuits highlight courts’ inappropriately rising role in education policy

Continuing coverage of the pair of lawsuits seeking to have the courts decide educational policy in Colorado (the Douglas County school choice case, and the Lobato statewide educational funding case) over the weekend highlights the increasing role of the courts (as opposed to elected school boards, or the state legislature in whom constitutional authority for making education policy & resourcing decisions is vested) in deciding how – and under what conditions –  our children receive an education.

Friday’s Denver Post published a guest commentary (“Lobato case is crucial to education“) that was nothing more than a special-interest plea for more money (that the state does not have) by the same people (a pair of school superintendants) who in one breath admit that “we find ourselves failing” but blame their failure solely on a “lack of resources” (never mind the successful accomplishments of other schools, particularly – but not only – charter and private schools less dependent on state funding).

The guest commentary fails utterly to substantiate a link between educational funding and performance, and fails to make the case for how “Colorado’s school funding system… is constitutionally inadequate” – since the Constitution leaves such questions of policy up to the state legislature, NOT the courts.

This educational-funding lawsuit (seeking to force even higher state educational spending by court order) represents yet another abuse of the courts for the pursuit of political ends – unfortunately aided and abetted by an all-too-complicit (and highly political) majority on the Colorado Supreme Court, which previously (October 2009) overturned two lower courts which had (correctly) dismissed the case (Lobato v. Colorado) as non-justiciable (meaning, a policy issue not to be decided by the courts).

The authors are correct in one regard:

In terms of the future of public education, Lobato is the most important case ever tried in Colorado.

If the courts are able to decide “the future of public education” by judicial fiat, Colorado citizens will have lost all control and accountability over our schools.

  • Douglas County school choice lawsuit:

Saturday’s Colorado Springs Gazette editorial (“Backward voucher ruling favors oppression“) was a scathing indictment of Denver District judge Michael Martinez’ ruling to stop the Douglas County school choice program via permanent injunction, calling it “a decision to segregate and oppress.”

The editorial correctly points out a fatal flaw in Judge Martinez’ ruling, which ignored governing constitutional precedent (Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, No. 00-1751, decided 27 June 2002, U.S. Supreme Court) holding that voucher programs did NOT violate the U.S. Constitution’s Establishment Clause:

In Colorado, education money attaches to children. With each child who enrolls, a public school gets more than $6,000 for the year.

Vouchers issue the money to parents. At that point, the money belongs to the parent and child. They are free to spend it at almost any accredited school, religious or otherwise.

The key point – that educational choice belongs to the parent, not to the government (especially, not to the courts) – bears repeating:

Once state money is converted to a voucher and given to a child, it’s no longer the government’s. It belongs to the child, who is subject to the will of a parent or guardian. Parents and guardians have the right to choose whether their children are schooled in secular or religious settings.

The Gazette’s editorial concludes by endorsing an appeal to a higher court: “Let’s hope this ignorant, backward ruling is soon overturned.”

Sunday’s Denver Post editorial (“The latest hurdle for school choice“) chimed in with (surprising!) support for the Douglas County school choice program in principle, but sounded a more cautionary note on the prospects for appellate success:

And while Douglas County officials have said they intend to appeal Denver District Judge Michael A. Martinez’s ruling, the language of his opinion – along with the current makeup of the Colorado Supreme Court – does not leave much room for optimism.

The Post’s editors have a point – they certainly are intimately familiar with the political predilections of the Colorado Supreme Court, as they are the court’s current landlords (a possible factor in the Post’s non-coverage of last year’s judicial retention elections) – but if the DougCo school board first takes their case to the Colorado Court of Appeals, which has largely been a bright spot for actually upholding the law in Colorado – they may have a decent shot at success, and will in any case build up a good record for where the case may ultimately be decided in the U.S. Supreme Court.

Finally, this morning’s (Monday) Parker Chronicle (online) reported on the first step of the appeal process (“Douglas County School District launches appeal process“):

The district announced it filed a stay of the permanent injunction filed against its choice scholarship pilot program, designed to deliver school vouchers to 500 district students. The program was stopped on Aug. 12 with the decision by Denver District Court Judge Michael Martinez, who ruled it unconstitutional in part because it routes public education money to private, religious schools,
In a news release issued Aug. 19, the district calls its motion “the first legal step in a planned appeal” of Martinez’s ruling.

Clearly, the fight for choice – and control – of education in  Colorado’s courts is just beginning.

These cases highlight the importance of fair and impartial courts and of judges who exercise proper restraint (in accordance with the rule of law) in considering – let alone deciding – issues of policy more appropriate for the elected, representative branches of government.  Our courts have an important – even vital – role to play in our society and system of government.  This is not it.

Clear The Bench Colorado will, with your support, continue to promote transparency and accountability in the Colorado judiciary, informing the public to increase awareness of the substantial public policy implications of an unrestrained activism and political agendas in the courts.  We will continue to work to educate voters and provide information of relevance related to the judicial branch, and to provide useful and substantive evaluations of judicial performance.

However, we can’t do it alone –  we need your continued support; via your comments (Sound Off!) and, yes, your contributions.  Freedom isn’t free -nor is it always easy to be a Citizen, not a subject.

Ultimately, though – it’s worth the effort.

Weekend Wrap-up: Colorado courts ruling o’er state schools

Citizens of Colorado hold elections every year to send representatives to different venues to consider and decide on policy (and allocate resources) for their children’s education: in odd-numbered years, for local school boards; in even-numbered years, for the state legislature, which has the constitutional authority to “provide for the establishment and maintenance of a thorough and uniform system of free public schools throughout the state.

Yet ultimately, the decisions about how education is funded, and how schools are run, are being made in neither of these arenas, but in the courts.

News coverage this week has highlighted this fact with two prominent cases:

  • Douglas County school choice voucher program
  • Lobato v. Colorado education-funding lawsuit

In the Douglas County school voucher program, the issue before the court revolves around whether an elected school district board has “the broad authority to contract with private schools for the provision of a public education to public school students.” [per Education Policy Center]  One might think that making decisions about the provision of public education is precisely why county residents elect a school board, but apparently (at least in the view of the plaintiffs, and the courts in Colorado) those decisions are better made by appointed judges.

The Douglas County case also touches upon important constitutional issues such a separation of powers, establishment of religion, and collection & allocation of tax dollars, but ultimately comes down to a very basic and fundamental issue: who decides how to educate Colorado’s children?

For additional information on this case, read:

Lobato v. Colorado education-funding lawsuit

The case with far broader implications for public education in Colorado (and the state’s budget) is the Lobato v. Colorado education-funding lawsuit, which just wrapped up the 2nd week (in a trial expected to last 5 weeks total) of testimony and argument, also in Denver District Court.

In this lawsuit, plaintiffs allege (on the basis of a single phrase in the state Constitution, without regard for the actual assignment of decision-making authority and responsibility to the state legislature in that same phrase) that Colorado’s school-funding system is “unconstitutional.”  Plaintiffs seek an additional $3-4 BILLION per year in state spending (plus a near-term increase in school construction of some $18 Billion) to “fix” the alleged constitutional deficit.

One not need look very far (indeed, just across the border to Kansas) to see the potential for a fiscal and budgetary train wreck of epic proportions.  Indeed, as Governor Hickenlooper correctly points out, the consequences for Colorado would be “devastating.

This educational-funding lawsuit (seeking to force even higher state educational spending by court order) represents yet another abuse of the courts for the pursuit of political ends – unfortunately aided and abetted by an all-too-complicit (and highly political) majority on the Colorado Supreme Court, which previously (October 2009) overturned two lower courts which had (correctly) dismissed the case (Lobato v. Colorado) as non-justiciable (meaning, a policy issue not to be decided by the courts).

Bottom Line: the lawsuit seeks money the state simply does not have, based on extremely tenuous grounds (a few words in the state Constitution calling for “thorough and uniform” education), and is improperly seeking to achieve these goals via the courts, not through the legislative branch or local school boards where such issues are properly decided.

The issue of educational funding is NOT one for the courts, but rather for the legislature and/or local school boards. The Lobato lawsuit is a fiscal, legal, and political disaster in the making.

Read more about the Lobato school funding case in these recent articles:

These cases highlight the importance of fair and impartial courts and of judges who exercise proper restraint (in accordance with the rule of law) in considering – let alone deciding – issues of policy more appropriate for the elected, representative branches of government.  Our courts have an important – even vital – role to play in our society and system of government.  This is not it.

Clear The Bench Colorado will, with your support, continue to promote transparency and accountability in the Colorado judiciary, informing the public to increase awareness of the substantial public policy implications of an unrestrained activism and political agendas in the courts.  We will continue to work to educate voters and provide information of relevance related to the judicial branch, and to provide useful and substantive evaluations of judicial performance.

However, we can’t do it alone –  we need your continued support; via your comments (Sound Off!) and, yes, your contributions.  Freedom isn’t free -nor is it always easy to be a Citizen, not a subject.

Ultimately, though – it’s worth the effort.

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