WERE THE PARENTS ENTITLED TO INTERVENE IN THE SCHOOL VOUCHER LITIGATION?
Case citation: Brumfield v. Dodd, __ F.3d __, 2014 WL 1395663 (5th Cir. 2014).
Summary: On August 22, 2013, the United States filed a motion seeking “permanently [to] enjoin the State of Louisiana … from awarding any school vouchers … to students attending school in districts operating under federal desegregation orders unless and until the State receives authorization from the appropriate federal court overseeing the applicable desegregation case.” The case involved a desegregation order, which prohibited the provision of public funds or other assistance “to any racially discriminatory private school or to any racially segregated private school” and created a certification process to establish private-school eligibility for receiving public funds.
The United States initially sought the injunction on the ground that the voucher program constituted public assistance to private schools in violation of the desegregation order. The government further argued that the program “deprives the students of their right to a desegregated educational experience.” The parents later moved to intervene (i.e., join in the litigation) for the limited purpose of opposing the motion for permanent injunction. The United States, however, changed its position, claiming that it no longer sought to enjoin the awarding of school vouchers, but only sought “the creation of a process under which the State would provide the information needed to assess and monitor the voucher program’s implementation consistent with the orders in this case on a regular and timely basis.” The trial court held that the parents lacked the necessary interest to intervene because the only remaining issue related to the sharing of information between the United States and the State of Louisiana in monitoring the voucher program. The trial court denied the parents’ request to intervene and the parents appealed to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals.
Ruling: The Fifth Circuit reversed the trial court’s decision to deny the parents’ request to intervene in the lawsuit. The appeals court observed that, under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 24(a), a court “must permit anyone to intervene who . . . claims an interest relating to the property or transaction that is the subject of the action, and is so situated that disposing of the action may as a practical matter impair or impede the movant’s ability to protect its interest, unless existing parties adequately represent that interest.” The purpose of an intervention is to allow an interested party to air that party’s views so that a court may consider them before making potentially adverse decisions.
A party seeking to intervene as of right must show that (1) the application is timely, (2) the applicant has an interest relating to the subject of the action, (3) the applicant is so situated that the disposition of the action may impair or impede its ability to protect its interest, and (4) the applicant’s interest is inadequately represented by the existing parties to the suit. The parents satisfied each of those requirements.
According to the Fifth Circuit, the parents had an interest in the action, even though the United States claimed that it no longer sought to enjoin the voucher program. The possibility still remained that if the parents were not able to protect their interests, some students would not get vouchers or would not be allowed to select their school of choice. The parents also demonstrated that their interests were not adequately represented by the existing parties. Even though both the State of Louisiana and the parents opposed dismantling of the voucher program, their interests may not have aligned precisely. The appeals court, therefore, reversed the trial court’s order denying the parents’ request to join as parties to the litigation.
Comments: This decision has more to do with federal court procedure than school law, but the backdrop is rich with political and policy concerns over vouchers, desegregation and the effort to privatize public education.