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Supreme Court Hears Arguments on Special Education, Police Rights

February 27, 2007 at 12:00 AM EDT

RAY SUAREZ: Yesterday and today, the high court heard arguments in cases that, while they won’t decide major constitutional issues, may have practical application in Americans’ everyday lives. NewsHour regular Marcia Coyle of the National Law Journal joins us to report on both.

And today’s case, Winkelman v. Parma City, seems to get right to the heart of whether regular people without a lawyer can petition the government for redress.

MARCIA COYLE, National Law Journal: Absolutely, Ray. This case rises under the federal law known as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. That act gives money to states to help them provide a free and appropriate education to disabled children.

It also sets up a process whereby parents who disagree with the plan a school district comes up with can go through a series of administrative hearings without a lawyer to challenge it.

At the end of those hearings, if anyone is still dissatisfied, the law says any aggrieved party can bring an action into federal court. The issue before the court today was whether parents can go into federal court without a lawyer and bring that action.

Is using a lawyer necessary?

RAY SUAREZ: Because the Winkelman family, who were appealing for their own son's educational plan, reached a point where it was difficult for them to afford a lawyer, right?

MARCIA COYLE: They did. This case really plays out against a very serious problem, and that is the ability of parents of disabled children to afford attorneys. And that's against the larger problem of the ability of low- and middle-income families to afford a lawyer for their legal problems.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, this is a federal statute. How did the justices receive this question about whether regular people always need lawyers?

MARCIA COYLE: Well, the Winkelman's attorney was first up. And he argued that the language of the statute, the purpose of the statute, makes it very clear that parents have a right to go into federal court on their own, without a lawyer, to bring any claim that the statute allows.

Some justices raised public policy concerns. You know, lawyers are officers of the court, said Justice Scalia. They protect the court from frivolous actions. If we give this right to parents without a lawyer or to the public at large without lawyers, we may have more cases. District judges will have more work.

But Winkelman's attorney said that those public policy concerns are way outweighed by the fact that two-thirds of disabled children in this country come from families that can't afford lawyers or can't find lawyers to take these very complicated, lengthy, emotional cases.

RAY SUAREZ: What about the city of Parma, Ohio's, schools? Did they stick up for the idea that, at some point, a family would have to retain a lawyer to continue its fight?

MARCIA COYLE: No. Actually, Parma believes that the statute is -- that the section that says any aggrieved party can go into federal court is silent on whether it's the parents and says that the rights under this statute really belong to the child. And it's the child that has the right to press them in court.

Parma says that these cases, again, are very complicated. In a way, you may be doing a disservice to the child to let a parent go into federal court without a lawyer. And the school district also relies on this very old common law presumption against laypersons representing the rights of others in court.

RAY SUAREZ: So you were, in effect, watching nine lawyers get asked whether you always have to hire a lawyer.

MARCIA COYLE: Yes, that's true.

Police force in car chases

RAY SUAREZ: Now to our second case. It involves a high-speed car chase. Six years ago in rural Georgia, police officers pursued a teenager. As seen in this video, an officer rammed the rear end of Victor Harris' car, causing it to spin out of control. The resulting crash left the 19-year-old paralyzed from the neck down.

And what was at issue, Marcia, in Scott v. Harris?

MARCIA COYLE: Well, unlike the first case we discussed, this is really a case involving the interpretation of the Constitution. The Fourth Amendment protects us from unreasonable searches and seizures. There's no question that this was a seizure, in the sense of the Constitution. The question is: Was it reasonable?

RAY SUAREZ: So this was really an excessive force case?

MARCIA COYLE: Yes. The court has evolved a test over the years in case law for what is unreasonable use of deadly force.

There are certain factors that have to be presented: The defendant threatened the officer with a weapon. The underlying crime was serious and involved a serious risk of harm to others. Or there was a serious risk of harm from the defendant's actions.

The attorneys for the officer here argued that this test should not apply to this situation, that the test should be whether, from the officer's perspective, there was a reasonable risk of serious harm. And in this case, the officer felt there was, and he used the force necessary in order to stop that harm.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, what did the attorneys for the now 25-year-old disabled man argue in his behalf?

MARCIA COYLE: He argued that the test that the court has developed over the years does apply here. And as the lower court found, this young man, at the time he was driving, was driving unsafely. He wasn't driving violently or aggressively, and so something less than deadly force could have been used.

The justices reacted not very sympathetically to this argument. In fact, there was a lot of sarcasm and jokes. Justice Scalia called the chase "the scariest chase I've seen since 'The French Connection,'" referring to the movie. Justice Alito said he thought, after seeing the video, that there was a terrible risk of serious harm here.

And on and on it went, so the lawyer had a difficult job. Only Justices John Paul Stevens and Ruth Bader Ginsburg pressed the lawyer for the officer on whether there were reasonable alternatives to ramming the vehicle. What about roadblocks? You know, what about letting him go and arresting him later? The underlying offense here wasn't serious; it was a traffic misdemeanor.

Using video in court

RAY SUAREZ: Did the presence of the video change or shape the way the argument went down in court?

MARCIA COYLE: Absolutely, it did. In fact, it was most obvious, I think, in the words of Justice Breyer, who said that as he read the briefs in this case, he went back and forth, back and forth. But once he saw the video, it was very dramatic for him.

He said, OK, I've seen the video. And the lower court says, though, that the factors, the test for deadly force, were not here. So who do I believe? Do I believe -- and he quoted Chico Marx -- "Do you believe me or what I see?"

RAY SUAREZ: So the balance -- it's interesting that here the officer is suing the person who was rammed, because the young man is still pursuing that officer back in Georgia courts, right?

MARCIA COYLE: The young man is suing the officer for violating his Fourth Amendment right to a reasonable seizure. This case has never gone to trial, so part of the issue here is whether it does go to a jury.

The officer, even if he's found to have acted unreasonably, can still seek what they call qualified immunity. That's, again, something the court has developed over time, saying that, if the law was unclear at the time the officer acted, then he's entitled to immunity from this suit.

His lawyer said today it was clear from the arguments and the questions from the justices that the law is very unclear.

RAY SUAREZ: Marcia Coyle, thanks for being with us.

MARCIA COYLE: You're welcome.