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Lawyers stretch their vocabulary in final Supreme Court briefs
Lawyers in the pending Kansas school finance case Gannon vs. Kansas may be testing the limits of their own vocabulary — not to mention everyone else's — in making their final written arguments to the Kansas Supreme Court.
As you may recall, the case turns on whether the Legislature has violated the Kansas Constitution's requirement to make "suitable provision" for school finance. Earlier this year, a special three-judge panel ruled that current funding is unconstitutionally low and ordered the legislature to increase it. The Supreme Court, which upheld a similar ruling in 2005, will now review the question.
That case is set for oral argument next Tuesday. In the days leading up to the showdown, several amici curiae, or "friends of the court" have filed briefs, prompting reply briefs by attorneys for the actual parties.
In one response brief, attorneys for the state actually reached back into Greek mythology to illustrate their point, with a little help from the Nebraska Supreme Court, which first used the phrase.
Arguing that the court should not engage in the business of trying to run public schools or make policy decisions about how much money schools should get, the state quoted the Nebraska court, which ruled on a similar question in 2007:
"[The] landscape is littered with courts that have been bogged down in the legal quicksand of continuous litigation and challenges to their states' school funding systems. Unlike those courts, we refuse to wade into that Stygian swamp."
There is no indication in the brief to suggest who wrote it. There is little doubt, however, that whoever wrote it used that swampy quote — out of the nearly infinite number of quotes they could have used — because it perfectly sums up the utter contempt that the state's lawyers have for the plaintiffs' case.
In fact, throughout their response, the state's attorneys don't even really refer to the plaintiffs' case. They call it a "case" — in quotation marks, suggesting they really don't think it deserves to be called one.
Although less prosaic in their brief, the plaintiffs didn't show any greater level of respect in replying to the amicus brief by former Kansas State Board of Education member Walt Chappell, the only outside party to intervene in support of the state's position.
Chappell now is the president of his own company, Educational Management Consultants. In his spare time, he's been organizing parades of people to come before the current state board and speak out against the new English and math standards known as Common Core.
Chappell argued in his brief that schools have plenty of money, and they simply need to be more efficient with it. He suggested saving half a billion dollars by consolidating school districts. He also suggested requiring teachers to work longer hours and changing the definition of "at-risk" students to decouple that designation from poverty status.
In response, the plaintiffs said Chappell had actually summed up the state's own position pretty well, and called his ideas "a self-contained demonstration of the completely reality-free school funding decision-making that would result" if this court accepts the state's arguments.
That's just a sampling of the arguments the lawyers have been making in writing. On Tuesday, they'll get to argue verbally in front of seven justices, and each other.
The court has set aside 60 minutes for oral arguments beginning at 9 a.m. Tuesday.