The Supreme Court issued another clear, although particularly narrow, signal for local control of schools in an Arkansas case yesterday. In an unsigned opinion the court said lower federal courts should not have interfered with a school board's decision to expel a student for being drunk in class.
But the anonymous ruling triggered a sarcastic dissent over the court's increasing use of such unsigned rulings in insignificant cases.
"We are far too busy to correct every error that we perceive among the thousands of cases that litigants ask us to review," Justice John Paul Stevens wrote in a dissent joined by Thurgood Marshall and William J. Brennan Jr.
The dissent is the latest and most strongly worded of a lengthening list of complaints by some justices about the court deciding cases anonymously, without full argument.
Noting that such per curiam--for the court--rulings usually are reserved to aid a prosecutor or warden, Stevens said, "Today we exercise our majestic power to enforce a school board's suspension of a 10th-grade student who consumed too much alcohol on Oct. 21, 1980."
The majority said the lower courts erred in saying the student's due process rights were violated by the Rogers, Ark., school board, which first suspended, then expelled him for intoxication. It noted that the Supreme Court in earlier cases "had plainly stated that federal courts were not authorized to construe school regulations."
Gwen Gregory, deputy legal counsel for the National School Boards Association, said the Arkansas case seemed to follow the deference to local control of schools noted recently by the Court in limiting a board's duty to educate the handicapped and in approving a board's ability to run a voluntary busing plan in Seattle.
Stevens' dissent quarreled with the majority's methodology rather than its finding. "This case illustrates how ineffectively the court is supervising its discretionary docket . . . . In ever-increasing numbers, appeals throughout the federal system are being decided in this fashion," he said.