Parents of Disabled Child Win Ruling

By Robert Barnes
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 22, 2007

The Supreme Court ruled yesterday that parents of disabled children do not have to hire lawyers to sue school districts when they attempt to ensure that their children's special needs are adequately met.

The court found that the federal Individuals With Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which guarantees children a "free appropriate public education," gives rights to parents as well. Parents may represent themselves in federal court when disputes arise between them and a school district over what is best for the child, the court held.

"It is not a novel proposition to say that parents have a recognized legal interest in the education and upbringing of their child," Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote in an opinion joined by six of his colleagues.

Justice Antonin Scalia, joined by Justice Clarence Thomas, wrote separately to say the majority's view of parents' rights under the law was too "sweeping." Scalia said the law gives parents a more limited ability to sue -- for instance, to seek reimbursement for enrolling a child in a private school.

The decision could allow more parents unhappy with education plans drawn up for their children by school districts to sue for changes.

"I believe there will be many more IDEA cases brought in federal court," said Kathy Mehfoud, a Richmond lawyer who represents about 80 school districts across Virginia.

Some parents of disabled children contend that it is expensive and often difficult to find lawyers who will take such cases.

That was the experience of Jeff and Sandee Winkelman, who sued the Parma, Ohio, school district on behalf of their autistic son, Jacob. The Winkelmans said they could not afford an attorney to continue their dispute with the school board over its decision that Jacob's needs could be met in a public school.

Federal courts generally allow individuals to represent themselves -- but not others -- without the aid of a lawyer. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit dismissed the Winkelmans' appeal on behalf of Jacob unless they obtained counsel to represent their son. That was the decision reversed by the Supreme Court yesterday.

The majority said a comprehensive reading of the act makes it clear that parents have rights at each stage of the process and thus may represent themselves in federal court.

"The parents enjoy enforceable rights at the administrative stage, and it would be inconsistent with the statutory scheme to bar them from continuing to assert these rights in federal court," Kennedy wrote.

Scalia, who concurred in part with the judgment and dissented in part, said his colleagues' decision "sweeps far more broadly than the text [of the act] allows."

The case is Winkelman v. Parma City School District.

The court also concluded yesterday that there were procedural problems with one of the cases argued earlier in the year and dismissed it without a decision. Roper v. Weaver concerned a death penalty case from Missouri that the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit had overturned because of questions about whether a prosecutor's comments had unfairly inflamed the jury considering the sentence. Scalia, Thomas and Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. objected to the court's decision to dismiss the case as "improvidently granted."

The court also reversed a lower court's decision that said Los Angeles County deputy sheriffs could be held liable for barging in on a white couple, who were naked in bed, while executing a valid search warrant for African American suspects.

The court did not hold a hearing in the case, Los Angeles County v. Rettele. But it said in an unsigned opinion that the officers were acting reasonably -- "the presence of some Caucasians in the residence did not eliminate the possibility that the suspects lived there as well" -- even though being forced to stand naked and motionless for several minutes was embarrassing to the couple.

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