In his column today, the Rocky Mountain News‘ Vince Carroll opines about a little-noticed state court decision (the Lobato case) that slapped down those who believe unelected judges should dictate school finance policy:
Colorado’s education establishment has spent the past three years sneering at democracy, trying to persuade the courts to take on a role that the state constitution assigns to the legislature. Last week they were rebuffed for the second time.
Will they finally get the message?
Will they accept the fact that the constitutional guarantee of a “thorough and uniform system of free public schools throughout the state” is not a reasonable excuse for the courts to usurp the power of the legislature and dictate the level of education funding?
Will they concede that no amount of legal testimony will ever reveal the optimal amount needed to educate a child, because every answer involves value judgments best left to elected officials?
No, of course they won’t. But at least a district court last year and now the Colorado Court of Appeals in a unanimous three-judge ruling have signaled that they understand their proper role. In blunt language, both courts dashed the plaintiffs’ hopes that they’d wade into the morass of school finance – as courts have done in a surprising number of other states – and simply order politicians to spend more on schools.
The latest opinion includes unflattering references to court decisions from other states, suggesting some were based in part on “policy choices and value determinations” that are inconsistent “with the principle of judicial restraint.”
Judicial restraint is of course the last thing desired by the lawsuit’s plaintiffs (a gaggle of parents and school districts) and their supporters (the Colorado Association of School Boards, Colorado Association of School Executives and the Colorado Education Association). Hence their search for judges undaunted by the challenge of undermining representative democracy.
You’d think a basic understanding of separation of powers – legislators make laws, judges interpret them – would preclude such an obvious decision from having to be made. But other states have gone down the path of allowing judges to determine “adequate” school funding formulas. Colorado’s other judicial overreaches aside, at least they got this one right.