March 25, 2019

Tenth Circuit: No Fundamental Right Exists to Limitless Taxation in Order to Fund Education

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals issued its opinion in Petrella v. Brownback on Monday, June 1, 2015.

Plaintiffs, parents of students in the relatively wealthy Shawnee Mission School District (SMSD) in Kansas, sued various Kansas officials in U.S. District Court in 2010, seeking to enjoin enforcement of Kansas’ cap on local property taxes for education. The district court dismissed their suit for lack of standing, but the Tenth Circuit reversed in an opinion limited to the sole issue of standing. The district court dismissed Plaintiffs’ claims that the tax cap is subject to heightened scrutiny but allowed the rational basis claims to proceed. Plaintiffs filed a motion to reconsider and a notice of appeal. When the district court denied the motion for reconsideration, plaintiffs again appealed. The Tenth Circuit consolidated the appeals.

Plaintiffs sought relief as to four district court rulings: (1) the denial of Plaintiffs’ motion for a preliminary injunction; (2) denial of Plaintiffs’ motion for summary judgment; (3) partial grant of Defendants’ motion to dismiss; and (4) denial of Plaintiffs’ motion for reconsideration. First addressing jurisdiction, the Tenth Circuit found it lacked jurisdiction to consider the denial of Plaintiffs’ motion for summary judgment. Next, the Tenth Circuit considered whether Plaintiffs’ claims were moot because of subsequent amendments to Kansas’ school financing system, and found they were not, since the slight increases to the budget cap did not ameliorate their claims that the cap burdened their constitutional rights. The Tenth Circuit proceeded to address the merits of Plaintiffs’ claims.

The district court concluded Plaintiffs were unlikely to prevail on their claims that the budget cap violated their First Amendment rights, burdens their fundamental rights, imposes an unconstitutional condition, and denies them equal protection. The Tenth Circuit agreed. Plaintiffs argued the budget cap violated their First Amendment rights because education is speech and the budget cap burdens education, therefore the budget cap burdens speech. The Tenth Circuit found each premise seriously flawed, and noted that no court has recognized that a limit on public funding for education constitutes a limit on speech. Plaintiffs argued the budget cap limits their free association rights because it prevents them from coming together as a community to vote to raise property taxes for education at the district level. However, the Tenth Circuit found that there is no First Amendment right to a voter initiative, and Plaintiffs were free to raise funds for the school district privately, which they did.

As to Plaintiffs’ argument that the cap violates their civil liberties, the Tenth Circuit found there is no fundamental right to tax one’s neighbors without limitation in order to fund education. Plaintiffs also argued the cap undermines their right to direct the education of their children, but the Tenth Circuit reiterated that there is no fundamental liberty interest in setting public policy for public education funding, and the cap only prevents Plaintiffs from compelling their neighbors to vote on a tax increase. As to Plaintiffs’ argument that the cap burdens their fundamental voting rights, the Tenth Circuit again disagreed, finding that precedential case law only scrutinized who may be subject to voting restrictions, not which topics may be restricted.

The Tenth Circuit similarly dismissed Plaintiffs’ argument that the cap should be reviewed under heightened scrutiny because it denies them equal protection of the law in a base desire to harm them, holding that wealth, or residence in a wealthy school district, is not a suspect class subject to heightened scrutiny. The district court dismissed Plaintiffs’ various claims that the budget cap should be reviewed under heightened scrutiny, and the Tenth Circuit affirmed this dismissal.

The Tenth Circuit dismissed Plaintiffs’ challenge to the district court’s denial of summary judgment, and otherwise affirmed and remanded for further proceedings.

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