Connecticut Supreme Court.
Connecticut Supreme Court. (Courtesy photo)

The Connecticut Supreme Court will hear oral arguments next month in a long-awaited case dealing with education-funding inequities between municipalities.

Last September, in Connecticut Coalition for Justice in Education Funding v. Rell, Superior Court Judge Thomas Moukawsher issued a ruling declaring the state’s method for distributing education aid was “irrational and unconstitutional.” In reading from the bench, the judge noted the state legislature had recently stripped away $5 million in education aid from some of the neediest school systems, transferring funds to wealthier districts: “In desperate times, $5 million is a lot of money,” he said. The judge imposed a six-month deadline on the state to develop a plan to overhaul its education-funding distribution system.

The state appealed to the Connecticut Supreme Court, which agreed to hear the case and temporarily put the deadline on hold. Originally brought on behalf of 15 students and their families in 2005, CCJEF v. Rell will be heard by the state’s high court on Sept. 28.

While the case is sure to impact local schools and how state aid is distributed to them, education attorneys say constitutional issues are at play. Some are questioning whether courts may be overreaching in making decisions that are the responsibility of the executive and legislative branches.

Andrew Feinstein, owner of the Feinstein Education Law Group in Mystic and Manchester, said he’s one of many attorneys who will be watching closely when the Supreme Court takes up the case. He noted that Moukawsher has suggested “radical change in how education is funded in the state. They may be good ideas or bad ideas, but are the courts the place to make that decision?”

The high court, Feinstein said, will likely take a more “modest position on what can be achieved through judicial edict. The basic question some might be asking may well be, ‘Is the legislative failure to act on public policy issues grounds for judicial involvement? How far will the courts go in terms of deciding major public policy issues?’”

David Rosen, who has been involved in CCJEF v. Rell since 2010, is one of hundreds of Yale students and professors and staff who have contributed to the case. A visiting clinical lecturer and senior research scholar at Yale, he owns Rosen & Associates in New Haven. He said the implications of the case “are both legal and practical” for Connecticut.

“The case offers a lot to lawyers and judges throughout Connecticut who are interested in the development of the Connecticut constitution and the interaction of the trial and appellate courts because this comes to the Supreme Court from a lengthy and detailed trial court decision,” Rosen said.

Pertaining to the state constitution, Rosen said the case interprets and applies a 1965 clause from Article VIII, Section 1 that reads: “There shall always be free public elementary and secondary schools in the state.” The question for the high court, Rosen said, is how to interpret that clause as it relates to funding inequities.

“This case before the court involves the Connecticut Supreme Court applying principles that will instruct us on the meaning of an adequate education under the Connecticut constitution,” Rosen continued.

The high court, Rosen said, clearly understood the importance of the case because—against usual protocol—it took the case directly from the Superior Court, bypassing the appellate level. In addition, Rosen noted, the high court is giving both sides 30 extra minutes to make oral arguments.

CCJEF v. Rell is one of 19 cases the high court will hear when its first session opens Sept. 11.

Other cases include the following:

State v. John Panek: Panek was charged in three cases with video voyeurism in violation of state statutes. The trial court granted the defendant’s motion to dismiss the charges on the grounds that the facts alleged by the state did not establish the statute’s “not in plain view” element because the female complainants were all in Panek’s immediate physical presence at the time the recordings were made and therefore were in “plain view” of him. The state appealed and the high court will decide whether the Appellate Court properly construed the “not in plain view” element when making its ruling.

Melvin Jones v. State of Connecticut, State’s Attorney’s Office: Jones was convicted of capital felony in connection with a shooting death. He filed a petition for a new trial, claiming newly discovered DNA evidence connected to a jacket he allegedly threw in a dumpster as he fled the murder scene, and that he was not the source of the biological material found on the jacket. The trial court denied a petition for a new trial, finding that the DNA evidence would not likely result in acquittal at retrial. Jones appealed. The high court will decide whether Jones is entitled to a new trial.