The U.S. Supreme Court today ruled that federal special education law grants parents "independent, enforceable rights" separate from their children and therefore they can pursue those rights in court -- without a lawyer if necessary -- so they can advocate for their child to receive a free and appropriate education.
The court's 7-2 ruling was a resounding victory for Sandee and Jeff Winkelman, who fought for the right to argue in court for appropriate educational services for their autistic son Jacob. The Supreme Court overturned a lower court ruling that said parents could not make such an argument without a lawyer who would represent their child; in other words, that parents did not have legal standing on their own under special education law, known as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Now the case goes back to a lower court which can decide the question of whether Jacob was receiving a free and appropriate education, and whether the school district of Parma City, Ohio, must repay the family for its privately paid tuition bills.
The case is called Winkelman v. Parma City School District and the decision is available online here (in a 30-plus page PDF file). Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote the decision, joined by justices John Paul Stevens, David Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Samuel Alito Jr. and Chief Justice John Roberts. Antonin Scalia wrote a dissent, supported by Clarence Thomas, that said parents had an interest in their child's education, but not a legal right to argue in court.
The decision is important for all families in the United States who have a disabled child, and goes far beyond autism; still, this situation has a particular resonance for parents with an autistic child. It's clear from the court records, the oral arguments and media coverage of the Winkelman's case that both the paucity of autism services in the local school setting, combined with the expensive nature of what the parents saw as appropriate autism services for their son, led the family to fight all the way to the Supreme Court.
At the same time as parents like the Winkelmans felt cornered by circumstances, school districts have been arguing in court that parents have no legal standing to represent themselves in court, as this story from The New York Times tonight notes.
The Supreme Court said clearly that such arguments are wrong. The Times story also points out that a key point of the Winkelman decision cites a principle from "one of the oldest federal laws on the books, derived from the original Judiciary Act of 1789, " which provides that "in all courts in the United States parties may plead and conduct their own cases personally and by counsel."
Sandee Winkelman said in an interview with The Cleveland Plain Dealer that the ruling "is more than I could have asked for... Every parent should be celebrating today." (See that report here.)
Justice Kennedy's decision is straightforward in its explanation that Congress wrote the IDEA to give parents the right to be involved as team members who work to develop an individualized education program, or IEP, for their child, who have the right to a free and appropriate education along with their child, and who have the right to an appeals process if they feel their rights are abridged.
Supreme Court Hears Case of Ohio Parents of Autistic Child