I like the result, but the opinion has problems

June 11, 2014

A California state trial judge has relied on the California constitution to invalidate state laws granting teacher tenure after two years, making it difficult to dismiss teachers, and requiring most-recently-hired teachers to be fired first. The opinion is Vergara v. State of California. I don’t live in California, and I’m no expert in the California constitution. But the judge’s opinion strikes me as unusually weak. A lot of readers will like the result, certainly myself included. But as a legal opinion, the decision seems to be missing a big step in the argument.

The reasoning of the opinion runs like this:

1) To have a quality education, it’s very important to have good teachers.
2) The laws on teacher tenure and dismissals produce bad teachers.
3) Because the laws produce bad teachers, they are subject to strict scrutiny.
4) The laws fail strict scrutiny because there is no compelling reason to have such bad laws.

I agree with Step 1 and Step 4. Step 3 strikes me as based on a possible but hardly obvious interpretation of California state precedents on the California constitution. Let’s put those parts of the opinion aside and instead focus on Step 2. In my view, the opinion is odd because it contains almost no argument for Step 2.

Step 2 would seem to require evidence of a causal connection between the laws challenged and the quality of teachers. But we don’t hear about that evidence. Instead, the judge notes that there are a lot of bad teachers in California. He then says that “on the evidence presented at trial” the laws led to the bad teachers and therefore trigger strict scrutiny. But the judge doesn’t say what that evidence is. In effect, he announces himself satisfied about the causal effect without telling us why.

To be fair, I would guess that the judge is ultimately right that those laws create bad teachers. That position certainly matches my ideological instincts. But I would think that a constitutional challenge here requires evidence, not ideology. Given that, it seemed strange that the judge just announced that linkage without providing the evidence for it. Or so it seems to me as a non-expert in California law.

Orin Kerr is the Fred C. Stevenson Research Professor at The George Washington University Law School, where he has taught since 2001. He teaches and writes in the area of criminal procedure and computer crime law.
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