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In a rather unfortunate bit of timing, the U.S. Supreme Court today unanimously overturned a 2008 decision Neil Gorsuch wrote on the educational rights of children with disabilities, about 40 minutes into Gorsuch's third day of confirmation hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

The current case, Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District, involves the application of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which mandates that public schools receiving federal education funding must provide a “free appropriate public education” to students with disabilities. It was one of those narrow interpretations of the law "exactly as it's written" that Gorsuch is so proud of, except, so sad, too bad, the Supremes unanimously rejected Gorsuch's reasoning.

At issue was the Individualized Education Program (IEP) a Colorado school district had designed for Endrew F., a child with autism, who had initially done fairly well in the public schools but had severe behavioral problems his parents felt the school could do more to help address. The parents felt that, as their son got older, the IEP the school prepared for him each year didn't give him enough structure to allow him to learn at the rate he was capable of. Eventually, when they were shown yet another IEP for his fifth-grade year that didn't seem any different from previous years, the parents put him in a private school for autistic kids, where his behavioral issues were managed more effectively and he began making more academic progress as well. The school district rejected the parents' application for reimbursement of the costs of the private school, saying the IEP they'd planned provided at least a bare minimum of progress, which the school insisted was all courts demanded under IDEA. The appeals court ruled in favor of the school district, citing Gorsuch's opinion in a 2008 case, Thompson R2-J School District v. Luke P., a similar case in which Gorsuch ruled a school had met its obligations under IDEA if it provided only such "de minimis" progress.

As ThinkProgress's Ian Millhiser explains,

Gorsuch essentially concluded that school districts comply with their obligation to disabled students so long as they provide those students with a little more than nothing.

Chief Justice John Roberts's opinion this morning rejected Gorsuch's minimal reading, which certainly saved the school district a ton of money by requiring it only provide the barest hint of improvement for kids with disabilities:

When all is said and done, a student offered an educational program providing “merely more than de minimis” progress from year to year can hardly be said to have been offered an education at all. For children with disabilities, receiving instruction that aims so low would be tantamount to “sitting idly . . . awaiting the time when they were old enough to ‘drop out.’”

Roberts noted that because the range of children and disabilities covered by IDEA makes it impossible for courts to impose a single standard of what constitutes an "appropriate" public education under the law, Gorsuch's minimal standard was certainly not what the law intended -- even for kids who can't progress at the same rate as their non-disabled peers:

The goals may differ, but every child should have the chance to meet challenging objectives.

This standard is more demanding than the “merely more than de minimis” test applied by the Tenth Circuit. It cannot be right that the IDEA generally contemplates grade-level advancement for children with disabilities who are fully integrated in the regular classroom, but is satisfied with barely more than de minimis progress for children who are not.

Not long after the Supremes' unanimous "Screw you, Gorsuch, autistic kids are entitled to more than minimal education" ruling, Illinois Democrat Dick Durban asked Gorsuch about his just-trampled 2008 ruling; he said that in the Luke P. case, he'd been "bound by circuit precedent.” Millhiser isn't having any of it:

In a 1996 opinion, Gorsuch’s court held that “the ‘benefit’ conferred by the [IDEA] . . . must be more than de minimis.” It set a floor. Whatever benefits the law provides to disabled students, it cannot simply be de minimis.

Gorsuch’s opinion in Luke P., by contrast, added the word “merely” to this framework. Under Luke P., the benefits offered to a disabled student “must merely be ‘more than de minimis.'" That one word effectively transformed the floor that the court placed below disabled students in 1996 into a ceiling. Gorsuch transformed a rule instructing school districts that they must do more than nothing into a rule instructing them that they don’t need to do any more than a little more than nothing.

This sounds awfully familiar -- as we already know, Gorsuch is the sort of careful jurist who's awfully sorry if a trucker freezes to death, but can't see any way a labor rule giving employees the right to not operate unsafe equipment could possibly apply to that situation. That ruling just happened to save the truck driver's employer a bundle. So it's hardly surprising Gorsuch would take a law intended to broaden the educational opportunities of people with disabilities and read it so narrowly that it means schools should get away with providing those kids only the barest minimum of learning. Beyond the smiling folksy charm, this guy really is a worthy successor to Antonin Scalia, a firm believer in the principle that the law is an asshole.

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[ThinkProgress / Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District]

Doktor Zoom

Doktor Zoom's real name is Marty Kelley, and he lives in the wilds of Boise, Idaho. He is not a medical doctor, but does have a real PhD in Rhetoric. You should definitely donate some money to this little mommyblog where he has finally found acceptance and cat pictures. He is on maternity leave until 2033. Here is his Twitter, also. His quest to avoid prolixity is not going so great.

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