Rhode Island District Court Reluctantly Dismisses Suit Seeking to Establish Federal Constitutional Right to a Civic Education

Plaintiffs will appeal, saying the decision gives them a road map to the  First Circuit 


New York, NY — Judge William Smith of the U.S. District Court for  Rhode Island today issued his long-awaited decision in Cook v.  Raimondo. The case was filed in November 2018 by a group of Rhode  Island public school students and families who seek to establish a right  under the U.S. Constitution to an education adequate to prepare them to  fully participate in their constitutional rights to “voting, serving on a  jury, understanding economic, social, and political systems sufficiently  to make informed choices, and to participate effectively in civic  activities.” 

Judge Smith granted the Defendants’ motion to dismiss the case, but did  so in a manner that eloquently set forth the critical importance of the  issues that the plaintiffs raised:

“This is what it all comes down to: we may choose to  survive as a country by respecting our Constitution, the laws  and norms of political and civic behavior, and by educating  our children on civics, the rule of law, and what it really  means to be an American, and what America means. Or, we  may ignore these things at our and their peril. Unfortunately,  this Court cannot, for the reasons explained below, deliver or  dictate the solution — but, in denying that relief, I hope I can  at least call out the need for it.” 

Plaintiffs have stated that they will appeal this decision to the U.S.  Circuit Court of Appeals for the First Circuit. 

The judge also added that: 

“…while this lawsuit must be dismissed, it is worth pausing,  before explaining why, to acknowledge the importance of  Plaintiffs’ effort here. This case does not represent a wild eyed effort to expand the reach of substantive due process,  but rather a cry for help from a generation of young people  who are destined to inherit a country which we — the  generation currently in charge — are not stewarding well.  What these young people seem to recognize is that American  democracy is in peril. Its survival, and their ability to reap the  benefit of living in a country with robust freedoms and rights,  a strong economy, and a moral center protected by the rule of  law is something that citizens must cherish, protect, and  constantly work for. We would do well to pay attention to  their plea.” 

Judge Smith rejected the plaintiffs’ equal protection claim, writing that although the U.S. Supreme Court “left the door open just a  crack” for re-consideration of its 1973 decision in San Antonio  Ind’t Sch. Dist.v. Rodriguez that education is not a right the U.S.  Constitution, he interpreted that “crack” to allow the courts to  consider only a case that alleges that students are receiving no education whatsoever or an education that is “totally inadequate.  He also rejected plaintiffs’ “substantive due process” claim that a  right to education for citizenship is “deeply rooted in the nation’s  history and traditions” because “[p]recedent clearly dictates that,  while education as a civic ideal is no doubt deeply rooted in our  country’s history, there is no right to civics education in the  Constitution.” 

Judge Smith’s opinion squarely recognized the federal court’s  authority to review the students’ claim on the merits, namely  whether a Constitutional right to civics education represented the  “quantum of education” that might be necessary for students to be  prepared for the “meaningful exercise” of their Constitutional  rights. While Judge Smith found, to his regret, that he was unable  to connect the legal dots to support this claim, his opinion  articulates what is at stake for our country and our Constitution,  leaving the Plaintiffs a road map to present their appeal to the First  Circuit. 

Michael A. Rebell, a professor at Teachers College, Columbia  University, who is lead counsel for the plaintiffs said: 

“Judge Smith has written the most eloquent and forceful  justification I’ve ever read for why American democracy is in  peril and why America may not ‘survive as a country’ if our  students don’t obtain a civic education adequate to allow  them to meet that challenge.” 

In the final paragraph to his opinion, Judge Smith wrote: 

“Plaintiffs should be commended for bringing this case. It highlights a deep flaw in our national education priorities and policies. The Court cannot provide the remedy Plaintiffs seek, but in denying that relief, the Court adds its voice to Plaintiffs’ in calling attention to their plea. Hopefully, others who have the power to address  this need will respond appropriately.” 

“Without a strong stance by the court, however,  our policymakers and our school leaders – those  who have the power to address these issues – will  not be motivated or capable of addressing this  issue appropriately,” Rebell said. “Judge Smith acknowledged that the U.S. Supreme Court in  Rodriguez left the door open ‘a crack’ for reconsideration aspects of that decision; we hope  to convince the Court of Appeals that this open  door does, in fact, permit the courts to rule on the  critical issues raised by our case.” 

Jennifer Wood, co-counsel for the plaintiffs added: 

“Although Judge Smith did not rule that this case  could move forward to trial, he thanked the courageous students and families whom we represent for fighting to improve their education  and possibly save our democracy. Judge Smith  said that this case ‘highlights a deep flaw in our  national education priorities and policies.’ This  case also highlights a deep and historical denial of  education justice. We will not stop fighting for  our clients’ fundamental right to an adequate education to prepare them to be fully empowered  citizens until we have exhausted every avenue to  right that wrong.” 

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