Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals Vacates a Potentially Groundbreaking Decision About Students’ Right to a Basic Education and Access to Literacy

In May 2020, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit vacated what would have been a groundbreaking decision in Gary B. v. Whitmer, a case in which a three-judge panel of the court held that the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process Clause provides students with a fundamental right to a basic minimum education and access to literacy. 

This case began in 2016, when a group of students at several of Detroit’s worst-performing public schools (schools that serve almost exclusively low-income children of color) filed suit against several Michigan state officials alleging violations of the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment. In their complaint, the students alleged that their substandard performance resulted from the abysmal conditions within their classrooms, including missing or unqualified teachers, physically dangerous facilities, and inadequate books and materials which, when taken together, deprived them of a basic minimum education. The federal district court dismissed the plaintiffs’ complaint on the merits, finding in relevant part that receiving a basic minimum education is not a fundamental right.

In April 2020, a divided three-judge panel of the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the district court’s dismissal of the students’ central claim and sent it back to the district court for further proceedings,  holding that the right to a basic education is so deeply rooted in our history and traditions and implicit in the concept of ordered liberty that access to a basic minimum education (i.e., an education that provides access to skills essential for the basic exercise of other fundamental rights and liberties) is a fundamental right protected by the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

In May 2020, a majority of the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals voted to rehear the case en banc (by all judges on the court). Importantly, that decision vacated the April 2020 opinion and judgment of the court. In June 2020, on the heels of a settlement agreement by the parties in the underlying case, the court dismissed the case as moot. See the Education Week articles discussing the settlement and court decision. As a result, no reconsideration of the issue by the court will be forthcoming, and the earlier three-judge panel decision has no precedential value. Despite the court vacating the decision and the fact that the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals does not have direct jurisdiction over Illinois, it is possible that the majority’s opinion will influence future courts and cases involving recognition of a federal right to a basic minimum education.           

Contact an attorney in our Students/Special Education practice group with questions on providing students with appropriate educational services.

Source: Gary B. v. Whitmer, 957 F.3d 616 (6th Cir. 2020); Gary B. v. Whitmer, 958 F.3d 1216 (6th Cir. 2020)

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