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The U.S. Supreme Court on Nov. 14 ruled, 6-2, that parents who challenge special education programs for not meeting their children’s needs must bear the burden of proving the programs’ inadequacies, and not school officials. Schaffer v. Weast, No. 04-698. Writing on behalf of the court, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor said that when parents challenge a program they have the burden in an administrative hearing of showing that the program is insufficient. If schools bring a complaint, the burden rests with them. The ruling is a loss for a Maryland family that contested a special education program designed for their son who suffers from attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. The justices were required to interpret the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act, which does not specifically say whether parents or schools have the burden of proof. Justices John Paul Stevens, Antonin Scalia, Anthony M. Kennedy, David H. Souter and Clarence Thomas concurred in O’Connor’s opinion. Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen G. Breyer dissented. Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. recused himself from the case because attorneys from his old law firm represented the school district. The U.S. Supreme Court also added two cases to its docket, both brought by or on behalf of prisoners: The justices will review a Pennsylvania Department of Corrections policy that withholds newspapers, magazines and photographs from prisoners who are confined in the long-term segregation unit of the State Correctional Institution at Pittsburgh because they are deemed violent or disruptive. The prisoner-plaintiffs argue that the policy violates their free speech rights under the First Amendment. The 3d U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals agreed, ruling that the policy was not reasonably related to legitimate penological interests. Beard v. Banks, No. 04-1739. The justices will ask whether a prisoner satisfies the Prison Litigation Reform Act exhaustion requirement by first filing an untimely or otherwise procedurally defective administrative appeal. Viet Mike Ngo was barred from participating in special programs, as punishment for “inappropriate activity” with volunteer Catholic priests. Ngo appealed, but the appeal was dismissed as time-barred. Ngo then filed a civil rights claim against the prison in federal court, which dismissed the complaint over Ngo’s failure to exhaust administrative remedies. The 9th Circuit reversed, finding that the reform act does not bar an action that was denied on state procedural grounds. Woodford v. Ngo, No. 05-416.

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