Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Update: Supreme Court Hears Case of Ohio Parents of Autistic Child

The Supreme Court today heard arguments by attorneys representing Jeff and Sandee Winkelman, who were arguing for the right to represent their son Jacob in court themselves when they ran out of money for a lawyer. The Supreme Court posted a 71-page transcript of the one-hour proceeding which you can find here. Read a preview of today's oral arguments of Winkelman v. Parma City School District here.

The case before the Supreme Court is expected to settle conflicting rulings by lower federal courts about parents' rights to represent their children under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). The Wrightslaw special education law and advocacy website has good background information on these lower court decisions and other aspects of the case which you can see here.

The judges' voices come through clearly in the transcript. Justice Antonin Scalia's questions convey his skepticism that a parent can claim the rights to represent a son or daughter in court, based on the way the law is written. Meanwhile, Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. asks the lawyer for the Winkelmans:

"How much of a practical benefit would it be for children with disabilities and their parents, if you are successful here, in light of the complexity of the IDEA and the fact that this is an area where some parents are going to have difficulty maintaining any kind of emotional detachment from the litigation?"
The Winkelmans' lawyer, Jean-Claude Andre of Los Angeles, noted that parents become "intimately familiar with the relevant law" by the time they reach court.

The Parma, Ohio School District attorney, Pierre H. Bergeron of Cincinnati argued that the child's rights under IDEA are a separate matter than the parents' rights; in his view, the court should distinguish between the two sets of people as a procedural, legal matter. That would preclude parents who are not lawyers from representing their kids in federal court because they were not representing themselves (which is permitted), but rather a separate party.

Justice Stephen Breyer posed questions that boiled down to: well, how can you separate parents from their children as a practical matter in such a legal case? When a child is a minor, with a disability? Who pays for lawyers if they can afford one in such special education cases? Who pays private school tuition or services if the child doesn't get what the family feels is needed? (It would be the parents, of course.)

The Bush administration's lawyer, David B. Salmons, assistant to the Solicitor General, argued in support of the Winkelman's view. Salmons told the court:

"Our position is that parents share in the substantive right to a free appropriate public education under the [IDEA] Act. ... The definition says that the term free appropriate public education means special education services provided, quote, without charge and at no cost to parents. We think clearly the free aspect, again, is first and foremost a right of the parents, because they're the ones that bear the cost."
A decision is expected in July.

No comments: