Can Courts Determine Whether Politicians are Ensuring that Florida Schools Allow Access to a High Quality Education?

The Supreme Court recently ruled in Haridopolos v. Citizens for Strong Schools, Inc. that a trial to determine precisely those questions can go forward.
The case history, which follows, demonstrates just how contentious this case is likely to be. In all likelihood the matter will come back to the Supreme Court before it is resolved. Plaintiffs at the trial level, a collection of students, parents, and interest groups, filed an amended complaint for declaratory and other relief alleging that the defendants, among them the Speaker of the House, the President of the Senate, and the Commissioner of Education are violating Article IX, Section 1(a) of the Florida Constitution that requires the state to provide for a “uniform, efficient, safe, secure, and high quality system of free public schools…”
After their motion to dismiss was denied, the state officials filed a petition for a writ of prohibition with the First District Court of Appeal (DCA), asking the DCA to prevent the trial court from exercising any further jurisdiction in the matter. The basis for the petition was the argument that the lawsuit presented non-justiciable political questions to the courts, seeking their intervention in a sphere that is properly left to the political branches. According to the state officials, questions pertaining to standards of education and funding are difficult issues to resolve and center on policy considerations, and the courts are not equipped to entertain such matters.
A highly fractured DCA denied the petition. Writing for the plurality, Chief Judge Benton stated that the constitutional provision is not so vague as to preclude the trial court from ruling on whether the provision is being violated. The plurality opinion noted that as trial courts in the state have jurisdiction over all matters that are not clearly and specially outside of their jurisdiction, that writs of prohibition are extraordinary writs that only issue in exceptional cases, and as trial courts in many other states have heard similar cases against state officials, it would be improper to issue a writ of prohibition. The plurality did not hold there are sufficient standards in Art. IX s. 1(a), Fla. Const. to find that the state officials are violating it, but rather that the case should be made one way or the other at the trial court. The plurality nevertheless certified the question of whether there are sufficient standards in the constitution as one of great public importance.
Judge Wolf, specially concurring, agreed that a writ of prohibition should not issue, but did not address whether the matter was of great public importance.
The dissent at the DCA would have held that the petition for a writ of prohibition should be granted as the constitutional provision does not provide justiciable standards. The dissent likewise would have certified the matter as one of great public importance, and therefore subject to the discretionary jurisdiction of the Supreme Court.
The state sought to appeal the denial of the petition to the Supreme Court. Prior to entertaining substantive arguments, the Supreme Court asked the parties to submit briefs on jurisdiction. The state parties argued that the Supreme Court had discretionary jurisdiction as a majority of the court construed a constitutional provision, because most of the DCA judges certified the question at hand as one of great public importance, and that Supreme Court ought to clarify that courts do not have jurisdiction over purely political questions. The plaintiffs below replied that the DCA merely issued a narrow opinion denying the writ of prohibition, that there was no majority opinion that certified the question as one of great public importance, and that the matter was not ready for consideration by the Supreme Court, as it would almost certainly have an opportunity to decide the matter after a full proceeding at the trial level and a full appeal at the DCA.
The Supreme Court unanimously refused to hear the case at this time, sending it back to the trial court. The docket at the trial court can be viewed here.