Federal appellate court temporarily stays order barring local Louisiana district from implementing school voucher program
Moore v. Tangipahoa Parish Sch. Bd., No. 12-31218 (5th Cir. Jan. 14, 2013)
Abstract: In a 2-1 split, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit (LA, TX, MS) has temporarily stayed the portion of a federal district court order preliminarily enjoining the state of Louisiana from implementing its recently enacted private school voucher program as applied to the Tangipahoa Parish School District (TPSD). The panel’s majority made it clear that: “Under the posture of the case as presented to us, we are addressing only the question of whether the district court’s injunction order should be stayed pending consideration of all arguments raised by the parties – jurisdictional and otherwise – following full briefing and, if appropriate, oral argument.”
The majority agreed with the State that it had demonstrated three grounds establishing that the district court had improperly issued the preliminary injunction: (1) the district court’s lack of jurisdiction under the Eleventh Amendment; (2) the Pullman abstention doctrine; and (3) the lack of evidence establishing authority for the court to act pursuant to the All Writs Act.
The dissent, on the other hand, believed the panel should have reversed the district court’s decision and order the lower court to abide by the Pullman abstention doctrine. The dissent pointed out that a state court had already ruled that the voucher program violates the state constitution, and a Louisiana Supreme Court decision affirming that ruling would “moot this federal litigation entirely.” The dissent concluded that “[t]here is no good reason for the continuation of this (potentially unnecessary) federal litigation at this time,” and noted that all members of the appellate panel “unanimously agree that the criteria for that abstention have been satisfied, and the rationale underlying that doctrine – reducing friction between the federal and state judiciaries when important questions of state law are involved – calls strongly for the doctrine’s invocation here.”
Facts/Issues: TPSD is currently under a federal district court desegregation order establishing certain student assignment and facilities requirements aimed at assisting the school board (TPSB) in achieving unitary school system status. Under Louisiana’s recently enacted private school voucher program (Act 1/Act 2), students enrolled in TPSD are permitted to attend alternative public or private educational institutions in lieu of attending their assigned under-performing public schools in the school district.
When students elect to participate in the voucher program, Minimum Foundation Program funds, state funds intended for public education, are diverted from the student’s assigned public school in the parish to the alternative public or private institution where the student is educated. The desegregation plaintiffs and TPSB filed motions for the issuance of writs pursuant to the All Writs Act, 28 U.S.C. § 1651(a), seeking injunctions against further implementation of certain provisions of Act 1/Act 2 based on their alleged interference with a court-ordered consent decree. The underlying consent decree arose from a 1965 federal desegregation suit, Moore v. Tangipahoa Parish School Board.
The federal district court issued a preliminary injunction, barring the State from implementing the program with TPSD. The district court subsequently denied the State’s motion to stay the injunction pending an appeal to the Fifth Circuit.
Ruling/Rationale: The Fifth Circuit panel’s majority granted the State’s motion for a stay as to that part of the district court’s order enjoining implementation of the Act 1/Act 2 voucher program. The panel majority pointed out that in order for the State’s motion to succeed, the State must show: (1) a likelihood of success on the merits; (2) that the State will be irreparably injured absent a stay; (3) the stay will not substantially injure the other parties interested in the proceeding; and (4) the public interest favors issuance of the stay.
In regard to the success on the merits, the State made three arguments: (1) lack of jurisdiction based on the Eleventh Amendment; (2) the Pullman abstention doctrine; and (3) lack of evidence establishing authority for the court to act pursuant to the All Writs Act.
Addressing the Eleventh Amendment argument, the majority agreed that the State had a strong likelihood of success because the district court’s exercise of authority violated Louisiana’s Eleventh Amendment sovereign immunity. It stressed that TPSB “does not seek an injunction to prevent violations of federal law, but instead seeks such relief in order to prevent the implementation of the state legislature’s decisions concerning education funding, a quintessentially state issue.”
The majority found that the plaintiffs were attempting to disguise their claim as compliance with the desegregation order, when in actuality the claim was directed at “affecting a state’s sovereign decisionmaking about state spending.” It found such a claim “conflicts with the State’s sovereign immunity by requiring it to answer what is essentially a claim for contribution from one of its subdivisions in federal court.”
Turning to the Pullman abstention doctrine argument, the panel majority explained that the doctrine states: “A federal court should generally abstain from exercising jurisdiction in a matter when an unsettled area of state law has an effect on the outcome of a federal constitutional claim or would render a decision on the federal issue unnecessary.” The panel majority determined that the instant case presented the very conflict the doctrine sought to avoid, i.e., “a federal court enjoining a state’s legislatively determined funding decisions prior to allowing the state to consider whether such decisions comport with its own constitution.”
The panel majority pointed out that a state trial court had already ruled that the voucher program violated the state constitution and that case is pending before the Louisiana Supreme Court. It continued that a decision by the state’s high court invalidating the program would obviate the need for the federal court to consider TPSB’s claim that the voucher law violates the desegregation order. It, therefore, concluded that “the State has a strong likelihood of establishing that the district court erred in exercising jurisdiction in light of the Pullman abstention doctrine.
Finally, the panel majority found that the State had a strong likelihood of succeeding on the All Writs Act argument because the broad use of authority advocated by the plaintiffs “is not compatible with the Supreme Court’s admonition that the All Writs Act is an extraordinary form of relief.” In regard to the rest of the prongs of the injunction test, it found all of them favor the State’s motion for a stay.
The dissent argued that the panel majority should have ordered the district court to abide by the Pullman doctrine and dismiss the plaintiffs’ claim when further assailing the majority’s reasoning. It stated: “[T]he majority incorrectly assumes that the doctrines of Pullman abstention and Eleventh Amendment sovereign immunity from federal suit may be invoked—not to terminate or halt this litigation—to enhance the State Officials’ likelihood of success on the merits in the stay-pending-appeal analysis.”
In regard to the panel majority’s conclusion that the Eleventh Amendment precludes the district court from enforcing a valid desegregation order, the dissent found state officials were not entitled to sovereign immunity from suit in federal court seeking to enjoin them from frustrating and interfering with a valid desegregation order. In addition, the dissent concluded that the State had not demonstrated a strong likelihood of success on the merits on the All Writs Act argument.
Moore v. Tangipahoa Parish Sch. Bd., No. 12-31218 (5th Cir. Jan. 14, 2013)
[Editor's Note: In November 2012, Legal Clips summarized an Associated Press article in The Times-Picayune, which reported on the federal district court ruling that the operation of Governor Bobby Jindal’s voucher program in Tangipahoa Parish conflicted with a decades-old desegregation case in the parish. The court determined that a series of sweeping education changes clashed with court orders in the 47-year-old desegregation case.
In December 2012, Legal Clips summarized an Associated Press article in The Washington Post, which reported that Governor Jindal’s voucher program that uses tax dollars to send students to private schools had been ruled unconstitutional by a state judge who said it was improperly funded through the public school financing formula. Judge Tim Kelley sided with arguments presented by teachers’ unions and school boards that sought to shut down the voucher program and other changes that would funnel more money away from traditional public schools.]