Inequality Expands Role of Courts

Washington State schools face a funding crisis, as Kirk Johnson reports:

Washington State’s highest court, which has threatened, cajoled and pleaded with the state Legislature and governor for years to close the gap in spending between rich and poor schools, said on Thursday that it had finally lost its patience. In a unanimous decision, the nine-member Supreme Court imposed a fine of $100,000 a day on the state until a plan to reduce the gap was accepted, and in a written order “encouraged” Gov. Jay Inslee to call the Legislature into a special session.

The financial sanctions, which started on Thursday with the filing of the order, will be owed every 24 hours, seven days a week, with the money going into an education fund. The court said that some of the fines might be returned — for each day the House and Senate are back in session working on the problem — but only if their work resulted in what the court called “full compliance.”…

Court orders regarding education financing are not new. Kansas is in the midst of one such standoff. High courts in New Jersey and Ohio have also ordered legislatures to meet constitutional requirements. But this order, with a financial penalty imposed by one branch of state government on another, to the tune of $700,000 a week, enters new territory, legal scholars said.

“I’m not aware, ever, of a state supreme court doing this,” Scott R. Bauries, an associate law professor at the University of Kentucky who studies state constitutions and education. “I can’t see any other way of describing it — the court is appropriating funds for the education system.”

This isn’t the only manifestation of courts taking on new or enhanced social roles as inequality rises.

Research has shown that income inequality can enhance political polarization, and polarization enhances gridlock. There is some evidence that polarization in turn shifts the balance between branches of government, as Jeffrey Toobin wrote in an article last year:

“Because Congress is not working the way it’s supposed to, there’s both pressure on administrative agencies and pressure on the courts to sort through, interpret, and validate or not validate decisions that in a better-functioning democracy would be clearer and less ambiguous,” Obama said.

He pointed out that the failure of Congress to pass legislation on climate change and immigration left his Administration with little guidance on how to proceed on those issues. When there is gridlock in Congress, “the executive branch has to make a whole series of decisions,” Obama said. “That, in turn, puts more burden on the Court to interpret whether the executive actions are within the authority of the President and whether they’re interpreting statutes properly. All of which I think further politicizes the courts.”

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