Johnson v. New York State Education Department

RESPONDENT: New York State Education Department
LOCATION: Allegheny County District Court

DOCKET NO.: 71-5685
DECIDED BY: Burger Court (1972-1975)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit

CITATION: 409 US 75 (1972)
ARGUED: Nov 08, 1972
DECIDED: Nov 20, 1972

Carl Jay Nathanson - for petitioners
Joel Lewittes - for respondents

Facts of the case


Media for Johnson v. New York State Education Department

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - November 08, 1972 in Johnson v. New York State Education Department

Warren E. Burger:

We’ll hear arguments first in 71-5685, Daisy Johnson against New York State Education Department.

Mr. Nathanson you may proceed.

Carl Jay Nathanson:

Mr. Chief Justice, may it please the Court.

Education has long been a regarded as perhaps the most important function about state and local government.

It’s recognized as fundamental and preservative of the democratic societies.

Education truly prepares the individual for meaning -- meaningful participation in society, economically, socially, politically, and intellectually.

New York State like most states in the United States conceived education of such fundamental importance about the individual and society that it compels minors to attend upon compulsory instruction for a period of 10 years.

It’s against this background that the issue presented in this Court must be considered.

New York’s public school system continues to rely extensively upon textbooks as the basic core for their curriculum.

It remains that fundamental tool in the education of all young students of public schools.

The question presented in this Court is whether the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment forbids New York State from denying indigent school children, textbook essential for the required instruction solely because of the inability of their parents to pay textbook rental fees.

In all but six of New York 756 school districts, the statutory scheme for providing textbooks is twofold.

With respect to students in grades seven to 12, the Education law requires that textbooks be provided free of charge to all students in both the public and the private schools.

With respect to students in grades one to six in the public schools, the legislative scheme provides that the authorized voters of a school district may vote a tax for the purchase and loan of textbooks free of charge to all students in grades one to six.

However, in the absence of such budget approval and such approval of a tax for that purpose, the local school districts are required to either rent or sell textbooks to all children in grade one to six.

In June and July of 1970, the voters of the West Hempstead Public School District defeated a budget and a tax for the purchase of textbooks and the distribution of textbooks free to children in grades one to six.

Consequently, the local school district notified all parents of children in grades one to six that they would have to pay a textbook rental fee as a condition to their children obtaining textbooks.

Warren E. Burger:

Now, what’s the situation today?

Carl Jay Nathanson:

Well, Mr. Chief Justice, in subsequent to the granting of the certiorari in this case, the school district did in fact approve a school budget and a tax for the purchase of textbooks.

Warren E. Burger:

So that all these students’ grades one to six are now receiving books, are they?

Carl Jay Nathanson:

All students in the elementary school are now receiving books.

However, the local school district is under an obligation under New York State law to hold annual budget referendum.

The preceding history of the pattern of voting in this district where six out of seven school budgets have been defeated -- the fact that they are -- these local school board admits that absent approval of this tax, they are mandated to rent or sell textbook to local -- to the students in the district.

I think based upon whether or not this case is moot or presents a justiciable controversy and I will cover that further subsequently in the argument.

Warren E. Burger:

Very well.

Carl Jay Nathanson:

The petitioners in this case are parents of children in the elementary school grades.

They were notified, received letters; the record bears it out prior to the commencement of the school term that no textbook would be provided to children unless their parents pay the textbook rental fee.

Petitioners are also recipients of public assistance in New York State and were unable to pay -- were unable to pay the textbook rental fee.

That factor is uncontroverted by the record and there’s no question of indigency.

Harry A. Blackmun:

Isn’t there something in the record however that part of their payments are for educational purposes?