Given all the recent talk from the Right about judicial activism, it was pretty amazing to see Justice Alito’s contortions in Thursday’s decision in Horne v. Flores that gave the Arizona School Superintendent one more shot at justifying what seems to be a flawed approach to helping its English language learners overcome language obstacles. The crux of the case, as Justice Breyer noted in his dissent, was that the graduation rate and test scores of English language learners in the Nogales Unified School District were significantly below that of the rest of the student body and the record demonstrated that this was because adequate resources were not being made available to address these students’ needs.
Justice Alito thought the lower court was being too protective of the students and that the case should be sent back for a re-do. He was not able to reach this result by concluding that compliance with the more lenient No Child Left Behind Act satisfied the higher standards of the Equal Educational Opportunities Act of 1974 – because a fair reading of the statutes would not permit such a conclusion. He resorted, therefore, to an in-depth, soup to nuts, re-examination of the detailed lower court findings, substituting his judgment for that of the courts below, without the deference traditionally accorded lower courts in this situation. He also, as the dissent pointed out, reached out to consider claims not even raised or considered below. Indeed, one of those claims Justice Breyer characterizes as "[springing] full-grown from the Court’s own brow, like Athena from the brow of Zeus." The result of all this, in Justice Breyer’s view: it will now be far more difficult for federal courts to enforce standards designed to support non-English speaking school children.
This result is troubling. And how the Court got there is equally troubling. Indeed, it’s the same kind of "unabashed display of judicial lawmaking" we saw in last week’s decision in Gross v. FBL Financial Services.