On May 21, 2007, the Supreme Court reversed the Sixth Circuit in Winkelman v. Parma City School District, Case No. 05-983, a case involving a major issue of parental rights under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, 20 U.S.C. 1400 et seq. (IDEA).
Winkelman revolved around Jacob Winkelman, an 8-year-old autistic boy enrolled in the public schools of Parma, Ohio, whose parents believed the school's individual educational plan for Jacob was unsatisfactory and inadequate for his needs. His parents filed suit in the Northern District of Ohio under the IDEA. After the district court upheld the school's plan, the Sixth Circuit dismissed the Winkelman's appeal on the grounds that the parents (neither of whom is a lawyer) were not lawfully authorized to represent their child in the litigation.
The 7-2 opinion, authored by Justice Kennedy and joined in full by Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Stevens, Souter, Ginsburg, Breyer and Alito, held that:
1. parents of learning disabled children have enforceable rights under the IDEA to assure that such children receive a free public education that appropriately fits the child's special needs; and
2. the Sixth Circuit erred in dismissing the parents' appeal on the grounds of lack of counsel because a necessary consequence of the first holding that the parents enjoy rights under the IDEA is that they are entitled to prosecute the IDEA claims on their own behalf. As a result, the Court did not reach the question of whether the IDEA entitles parents to litigate their child's claims pro se.
Justice Scalia, joined by Justice Thomas, dissented on the first point, concluding that parents do not have independent rights under the IDEA to compel a school district to provide a more appropriate educational plan for their disabled child. According to the dissenters, parents' rights to sue on their own behalf and to act as their own counsel would be restricted to seeking reimbursement for private school expenses incurred or to enforcing procedural rights to review within the school district. Parents could not sue without a lawyer when enforcing their child's right to an adequate educational plan. According to Justice Scalia, the majority's recognition of independent parental rights "sweeps far more broadly than the text [of the IDEA] allows." While such a right "obviously inheres in the child, for it is he who receives the education," "[t]he text of the IDEA makes clear that parents have no [such] right to the education itself."
The Court's opinion can be found here. Justice Scalia's opinion concurring in the judgment and dissenting in part is here. Lyle Denniston has an excellent post about the Court's opinions at Scotusblog here. Scotusblog's pre-argument preview of the case is here and its argument recap is here.
Jean-Claude Andre was the successful counsel for the prevailing petitioners. Petitioner's merit brief is here and their reply brief is here. Although respondent's merit brief is unavailable, the BIO to certiorari is here. The Solicitor General's amicus brief supporting petitioner's interpretation of the IDEA is here.
Disclosure: The author of this post submitted a brief to the Supreme Court, co-authored by Tom Goldstein and Amy Howe of Scotusblog and the Stanford Law School Supreme Court Litigation Clinic, on behalf of the Ohio Coalition for the Education of Children With Disabilities and the Autism Society of Ohio as amici curiae in support of petitioners. That brief can be found here.