The complaint in Cook v. Raimondo, in federal district court in Rhode Island, where I reside, is available online from WPRO. The suit was ably contextualized by Alia Wong for The Atlantic and covered by The New York Times. Wong's piece, along with its sidebars and links, recounts the troubled history of claims to education rights under the U.S. Constitution and the unique if stubborn position of the United States in the world in refusing to add children's education to our pantheon of civil rights.
Personally I worry about the overuse of human rights language to enshrine the mundane as sacred and thereby downgrade basic human needs to aspirational wish lists—witness the dilapidated state of South African townships while the courts struggle to engineer economic rights into reality. But I also readily admit that our 1789 Constitution, in part owing to its excessively burdensome Article V amendment process, has fallen behind the times on some omissions that, with the benefit of hindsight, seem to be no-brainers—such as sexual equality, the right to privacy, the freedom of information (a.k.a. right to access to information), and quite well arguably, rights to breathable air and basic education.
The Cook complaint smacks of activist litigation, aimed as much at media and policymakers as at the courts. It gets around to its legal claims in number 121 of its 133 paragraphs. Nevertheless, the claims are clever and worth pondering. In five counts, the complaint neatly alleges violation of (1) the equal protection clause (mostly "fundamental interest," though there's a strong thread of "diversity" too), (2) the due process clause, (3) the privileges-and-immunities clause, and then—here's where things get spicy—(4) the Sixth and Seventh Amendments, and (5) the republican guarantee clause.
The Fourteenth Amendment claims are built upon a compelling background that heralds the Framers' recognition of education's essentiality to democracy, followed by a depressing account of how public education in civic virtue lately gave way to a bottom-line-oriented mill of standardized test preparation, woefully inadequately equipped and devoid of vision or values. The story is downright Orwellian, as the complaint describes the plodding production of glassy-eyed sheep to populate America, children robbed and broken of the knowledge, skill, or will to challenge the status quo. One wonders that Ayn Rand herself would not be persuaded to the cause of public education.
Added to the conventional Fourteenth Amendment angle are those thought-provoking latter claims about jury service and republican governance. Citation to the Sixth and Seventh Amendments, as well as the federal Jury Act, focuses on that vital and rare obligation of citizen direct participation in government to assert a denial of rights both to the jurors who are ill prepared for the job and, consequently, the litigants and criminal defendants who depend on an informed jury to vindicate their rights. In the final count, the republican guarantee clause is cited with indirect reference to the First Amendment ("free speech and other constitutional rights"), suggesting that an ill informed electorate can neither vote nor participate in government sufficiently to maintain representative democracy. I can't help but think of the seemingly insoluble dilemma of money in politics, evidenced by the fealty to corporate donors pledged by our paralyzed, gerrymandered, and hardly-any-longer representative Congress.
Cook brings readily to mind the Juliana climate change lawsuit (and the Dutch Urgenda decision), about which I wrote recently. Juliana seems doomed in the U.S. Supreme Court, if ever it were to get that far, despite a curiously indulgent ruling by Judge Ann L. Aiken in federal district court in Oregon (and later), sending the case on to trial. It's overwhelmingly probable that the Juliana plaintiffs do not expect to win. Rather, they seek to make a point, and they're doing so well. So in Cook, too, as in a similar case on appeal in Michigan, the litigants have opined publicly that they hope to draw the attention of lawmakers and to stimulate public discussion—even to educate student-plaintiffs through the process, something also happening in the Juliana case, in which students appears as plaintiffs, and Judge Aiken relies deliberately on the work of student externs. Consonantly, these cases stir up amicus feeding frenzies; NGOs in Cook already are jockeying for position to get their say on the public record. (I'm not above it.)
As something of a separation-of-powers formalist, I'm troubled by the use of the courts for policy-making activism. The courts are not designed for policy-making, and judges are not hired to be activists. The late Justice Scalia famously and aptly lamented the prospect of nine black-robed "moral philosophers" in Washington, D.C., with lifetime appointments, making policy decisions for a purportedly democratic nation. When I see a complaint that is drafted for public consumption and political persuasion rather than for judicial interrogation and a search for truth, I fear the strategy undermines whatever remains of the bar's reputation for professional integrity and objective clarity.
At the same time, this rise in judicial activism is a sign and symptom of something very broken about our democracy. People are resorting to the courts because the political branches are not responsive. Much as the Cook plaintiffs suggest, our system of government is failing to represent its constituents. The complaint asserts, "Most social studies classes in Rhode Island do not discuss social problems and controversial ideas ...." The complaint concludes: "A positive civic ethos requires all students to feel that they have a stake in the society and in its political system, and that institutions can work for them and their families in the future, even if these institutions have not been fully responsive to their needs in the past."
Whether for the right to breathable air or a basic education, a frustrated youth is turning to the courts not as a first resort, but as a last resort. If in the end, none of our three branches of government delivers on the American promise—not the dream per se, but the opportunity to attain it—where will complainants go next?
The Brookings Institution opined in 2011:
Education has played an important role in the uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa with many commentators noting that educated youth have been integral to what has come to be called the “Arab spring.” However, what they fail to mention is that spending many years in school has failed to give many Arab youth a good education. These revolutions were not propagated by well-educated youth; these uprisings were spurred by the needs and demands of poorly educated youth, whose knowledge and skills do not meet the demands of a rapidly-advancing world.... [Despite near universal access to education,] there has been very low return on investment in terms of meaningful educational outcomes. Education systems throughout the region are hindered by low quality, irrelevancy and inequity.
Next stop: American Spring?