Friday, January 20, 2012

Los Angeles USD v. Garcia (9th Cir. - Jan. 20, 2012)

I'm generally in favor of certifying questions to state courts.  It shows modesty.  It shows deference.  It's a good thing.  And the Ninth Circuit's been doing more and more of it.  Good.

It certifies another question today.  Asking the California Supreme Court to decide yet another state law issue on which, true enough, there's little to no California precedent.  So it makes sense.

But this is one of those rare cases in which while it may may sense for the Ninth Circuit to certify the question, if I were on the California Supreme Court, I might well vote to decline to answer it.

Sure, the issue matters.  California law says that if you're 18 to 22, and haven't yet graduated from high school, and need special education services under the IDEA, you get them.  Generally from the school district in which your parents live.  This makes sense.  That's where the student probably goes to school and/or reside.

But it's the modern era.  What if you're 18 to 22, haven't graduated high school, still need special services, but are in jail?  Who gives you those services now?  The district in which your parents live?  The district in which your jail (or prison) is located?  The state?

The relevant California statute wasn't written with an eye towards special education students incarcerated as adults.  But it happens.  To a non-trivial number of students.  So it's an issue that has some import. Which is a reason to certify the question.  On important state law matters, it makes some sense to let the highest state court have a shot at resolving the issue.

But that doesn't mean the state court has to answer the question.  And, here, these matters arise under the IDEA, so they'll normally be litigated in federal court.  So there's not a huge risk of forum-shopping or unjust discrimination if the federal court says X but a state court feels the right answer is Y.  We'll ultimately have a uniform answer, and fairly rapidly so, even if the Ninth Circuit just decides the matter itself.

And the Ninth Circuit's right that who's responsible for educating these students may have a state budgetary impact, but to be honest, that's a legislative issue -- not something the California Supreme Court should care about.  Someone's going to pay.  Maybe the Los Angeles Unified School District.  Maybe the Fresno School District.  Maybe the state.  But it's basically the same amount of money.  Yeah, we want to get the allocation right if we can.  But it's a Legislative decision, and we decide the matter based upon interpretation of a statute.  The Ninth Circuit can do that pretty much as well as the California Supreme Court.  Moreover, if the Legislature doesn't like what either the Ninth Circuit or California Supreme Court decides, they can easily amend the statute.  So, in my mind, at least, there's no real need to get the California Supreme Court's view on the issue.  A decision by the Ninth Circuit would be just fine with me.

In some cases, this might lead me to vote against certifying the question in the first place.  But not here.  The plaintiff here has already been transferred to state prison, making his particular claim basically moot.  So we don't need to act especially quickly here -- we've elected to decide the case on "capable of repetition yet evading review" grounds, and in this setting, speed isn't a priority.  So taking the time to give the California Supreme Court a shot at answering the questions isn't a significant downside.  Worth the shot.

But that also means that the California Supreme Court should be equally fine with declining to answer the question.  That'll boot the case back to the Ninth Circuit, and potentially result in some additional delay.  But no biggie.  The case will get resolved.  We'll get a uniform answer.  And while L.A. might have to pay for X and Fresno might have to pay for Y, it'll largely balance out in the end; and, again, it's the largely same total amount of money either way, and the Legislature can easily amend the statute if they don't like the decision of whatever tribunal decides.

The California Supreme Court's busy.  They've got death sentences to uphold and a plethora of Courts of Appeal to keep in line (and uniform).  This is an important issue, but one that the Ninth Circuit can decide just as well.  The California Supreme Court has a limited docket -- it can decide far fewer cases than the Ninth Circuit can.  So I'd probably respond to today's certification decision with:  "Thanks, Ninth Circuit.  We appreciate the certification.  Truly.  Honestly.  But you go ahead and take this one.  We trust you."

So that's my vote.  We'll see if the seven actual justices on the California Supreme Court agree.