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Handicapping the High Court on School Finance

When the Texas Supreme Court last considered school finance system in 2005, it upheld one of the trial court's findings and overturned another in a 7-to-1 decision. There has been high turnover on the court since that ruling.

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State District Judge John Dietz declared the Texas school finance system unconstitutional last week. But the 260 hours the litigants spent in his courtroom only mark the beginning of the lawsuit's journey through the legal system.

Dietz's oral ruling, delivered from the bench immediately after the state finished its closing arguments, will be followed by a detailed written decision in four to six weeks. At that point the state plans to appeal — most likely to the Texas Supreme Court, though it could also choose a slower trek through Austin’s 3rd Court of Appeals first. Opting for the more circuitous route could be advantageous depending on timing.

Parties involved in the litigation estimate that with a direct appeal, it would take the high court about a year to reach its final decision, sometime in spring 2014 — either right before or right after the primaries. There are three justices up for re-election then: Chief Wallace Jefferson, Jeffrey Boyd and Phil Johnson. A special session would likely take place that fall. If the legal process were more drawn out, the final decision could land just before 2015, leaving lawmakers to consider it during the 84th regular session.

Dietz was also the judge at the trial level when the courts last considered school finance system in 2005. He issued a ruling then that found the system unconstitutional because it was inadequately funded and it created a statewide property tax — two conclusions he came to once again this time around. Back then, in a 7-to-1 decision, the all-Republican Supreme Court agreed with Dietz on the property tax finding, but did not on the adequacy claim.

While no constitutional violation existed at the time, the justices wrote, “there is substantial evidence, which again the district court credited, that the public education system has reached the point where continued improvement will not be possible absent significant change, whether that change take the form of increased funding, improved efficiencies, or better methods of education.”

The opinion went on to say that “it remains to be seen whether the system’s predicted drift toward constitutional inadequacy will be avoided by legislative reaction to widespread calls for changes.”

The two-thirds of schools districts suing the state believe that reaction has not taken place, and that what the court originally saw as an impending constitutional violation has turned into a real one.

But there has been high turnover among the justices who considered that case. Four who participated in the decision remain on the bench: Nathan Hecht, who wrote the opinion, Jefferson, Johnson and Paul Green, who were all in the majority. Don Willett was on the court but recused himself.

Since then, four new justices have joined the court: Debra Lehrmann, a former Fort Worth family court judge; Eva Guzman, a former Houston appellate judge; Boyd, Gov. Rick Perry’s former general counsel; and John Devine, a social conservative activist and former Houston trial court judge. Perry first appointed all of them except Devine, who won a primary against incumbent David Medina.

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