Abbott v. Burke Litigation Casts Long Shadow Over State Politics

Supreme Court to decide if administration's deep cuts in school aid violate earlier Abbott rulings.

The Hughes Justice Center, home to the state Supreme Court.
Abbott v. Burke’s next go-round before the state Supreme Court looms over much of the state’s politics and its budget.

And while the court has yet to announce when it will take up the case, the final arguments and players are falling into place for the epic school finance litigation — including some early indications as to which justices will hear the case.

So far, a half-dozen amicus briefs have been filed by “friends of the court,” each supporting the complaint against the Christie administration’s deep cuts in state aid to public schools as a violation of previous Abbott rulings.

The latest to join was the administration’s own state-run Newark schools, the district where Christie made a big pitch for revamping its leadership and operation.

The president of the Newark schools’ elected advisory board yesterday said it was the board’s decision to press the court involvement.

“As a board, we have an independent obligation to make decisions on behalf of our schoolchildren,’’ said Shavar Jeffries, the board president and himself a former counsel in the state attorney general’s office.

Signing On in Support

In addition, at least 10 districts have signed on in support of the chief plaintiff, the Education Law Center (ELC), most of them urban districts that have long been in on the case, as well as a couple of suburban ones.

The numbers of districts joining the cases is well down from previous Abbott litigation, in part due to tighter budgets to pay the legal expenses, officials said. The urban districts include Bridgeton, Perth Amboy and Jersey City. The suburban are Piscataway and Montgomery.

But add in supporting briefs from statewide associations like the New Jersey Education Association, the NAACP and special education advocates, and it will still be a crowded courtroom when the court does decide to hear the matter.

“This gives you a sense of the ground-level view,” said Richard Shapiro, attorney for eight of the urban districts signing on. “It is a more specific indication of what is happening in the schools themselves.”

Early Indicators

Six months after the law center filed the complaint, the court has yet to set a date for arguments, while it has approved filings and set dates for the state to respond to each of them.

The court has shed some light on at least who will hear the case, with a spokeswoman saying yesterday that Chief Justice Stuart Rabner would again recuse himself. Rabner was attorney general under former Gov. Jon Corzine and was involved in developing the school-funding formula now at the center of the matter. In addition, Justice Virginia Long this time would hear the case, after recusing herself in 2009, said spokeswoman Winnie Comfort.

The timing for the court to hear the matter is growing critical, for a number of reasons.

For one, it continues to be at the center of Christie’s bid to remake the bench more in keeping with his judicial philosophy. Last month at one of his town halls, the governor specifically cited the Abbott litigation as the kind of case he wants to reverse with his coming appointments to the court

In addition, how the court rules will have a big fiscal impact on Christie’s state budget, both this year as schools cope with the cuts and next year when the governor is faced with shortfalls that could mean still more cuts.

The ELC and its cast of friends have argued that the cuts run against the court’s own edict in 2009 that backed up the state’s school-funding formula but only as long as it was fully funded. The administration has countered that the extraordinary financial conditions warrant the cuts and they were made as fairly as possible.

Amicus Briefs

The amicus briefs largely lay out the specifics in the participating districts in legal terms, with certifications from school officials to the extent of the cuts and their impact on staff and students.

Newark’s certification, filed in late September and awaiting the state’s response, describes the impact of the state’s $42 million cut on New Jersey’s largest district: 199 civil service and supervisory positions, 394 teachers and other instructional staff, 34 substance abuse coordinators, 26 special education positions, and 6 health coordinators.

“It undermines our ability to provide a quality education,” Jeffries said yesterday. “And there is also the downstream effect in terms of the 20011-12 budget and setting a precedent for additional cuts.”

When asked whether it was awkward as a state-run district to be joining a suit against the state, Jeffries said he hoped it won’t hurt future decision-making on a new Newark superintendent and other planned reforms.

“We obviously strive to collaborate with our colleagues in the state, but on this issue and the funding, we don’t accept the state’s decision,” Jeffries said.

The governor’s spokesman, Michael Drewniak, declined to comment