Zuni Public School District No. 89 v. Department of Education
550 U.S. ___, 127 S.Ct. 2931, 168 L.Ed.2d 257 (2007)

  • New Mexico received certification from the Department of Education that it "equalized" its educational expenditures between school districts.
    • That gave them the ability to lower funding to schools on Indian Reservations because those schools were getting Federal Aid.
  • Zuni was one of the schools that lost funding. They sued.
    • Zuni argued that the Department of Education had improperly determined that there had been "equalization."
      • When calculating the average funding the schools received, Dept. Ed. had a policy of ignoring all schools in the top and bottom 5%.
        • (5% based on number of students, not based on number of schools, which makes a big difference if you have one big well-funded school and lots of little poorly-funded schools.)
    • Dept. Ed. argued that they had properly calculated the average, but Zuni argued that the policy was inconsistent with 20 U.S.C. 7709, which they claimed mandated that the top and bottom 5% of schools be ignored, not the top and bottom 5% of students.
      • 7709(b)(2)(B)(i) says to "disregard local educational agencies with per-pupil expenditures or revenues above the 95th percentile or below the 5th percentile of such expenditures"
      • So, if there are 100 schools, and the top school has 5% of the students, do you disregard the top 5 schools (no matter how many students they have) or just the single top school (5% of the students)?
  • The Administrative Law judge dismissed the complaint. Zuni appealed.
  • The Secretary of Education affirmed the ruling. Zuni appealed.
    • The Secretary of Education found that 7709 was ambiguous and so the Dept. Ed. was free to interpret it.
  • The Federal Appellate Court affirmed. Zuni appealed.
    • The Federal Appellate Court found that 7709 was ambiguous and that Dept. Ed.'s interpretation was reasonable.
  • The US Supreme Court affirmed.
    • The US Supreme Court noted that 7709 is ambiguous and doesn't specify whether it means the top and bottom 5% of schools or the top and bottom 5% of students.
      • The plain language of the Statute seems pretty clear and should be in Zuni's favor. However, the Court found that the Statute only mandates that the Dept. Ed. use a method that involves "per-pupil expenditures." But it doesn't say which of several different possible methods the Dept. Ed. must use.
        • The Court noted several methods of calculation that could be said to be "per-pupil" by a statistician.
      • The Court noted that the legislative history was silent on how to calculate the statistics.
    • Based on the standard established in Chevron U.S.A. Inc. v. Natural Resources Defense Council (467 U.S. 837 (1984)) once a Statute has been determined to be ambiguous, the courts are to defer to the Agency's interpretation, as long as that interpretation is reasonable.
      • In this case, the Court found that the Dept. Ed.'s interpretation was reasonable.
        • The Court looked to the testimony of statisticians who said that the Dept. Ed.'s interpretation was reasonable.
    • The Court noted that in this case, it was apparent that Congress specifically wanted the Secretary of Education to develop the policy.
      • "The matter at issue is the kind of highly technical, specialized interstitial matter that Congress does not decide itself, but delegates to specialized agencies to decide."
      • The Court noted that Congress actually had the Secretary of Education write the draft language Statute for them, so Congress must have obviously wanted the Secretary to come up with the proper method.
      • The Court noted that the Statute has been in force for over 20 years, and the Secretary had been interpreting it the same way all that time and Congress never complained.
        • That's ratification by silence.
  • In a concurrence, it was argued that it was clear that the intent of Congress to was use the method that the Dept. Ed. was using, and the courts should follow that intent, even if it doesn't exactly match the literal wording of the Statute.
    • "In rare cases the literal application of a statute will produce a result demonstrably at odds with the intentions of its drafters, and those intentions must be controlling." (Griffin v. Oceanic Contractors, Inc., 458 U.S. 564 (1982)).
  • In a dissent it was argued that the plain language of the Statue was clear, unambiguous, and against the Secretary of Education. The dissent felt that the majority purposely found ambiguity where there was none because they wanted to rule for the Dept. Ed. and to "elevate judge-supposed legislative intent over clear statutory text."
    • Basically, the dissent argued that when the plain language is clear, you have to follow it, regardless of what the legislative intent might be. In this case, the dissent found no ambiguity in the plain language of the Statute, and therefore there should be no judicial deference to the Administrative Agency (as required by Chevron).
      • The dissent compared this opinion to Church of the Holy Trinity v. United States, 143 U.S. 457 (1892).
      • "In order to contort the statute's language beyond recognition, the Court must believe Congress's intent so crystalline, the spirit of its legislation so glowingly bright, that the statutory text should simply not be read."
  • Basically, the plain language of the Statute seemed to be pretty unambiguous, but was at odds with how the Dept. Ed. was interpreting the Statute. The Court found that since this nitpicky methodology was the sort of thing that Congress normally leaves to the Administrative Agencies, and since the Secretary of Education was the guy who wrote the draft Statute in the first place, Congress probably intended to allow the Dept. Ed. room to interpret the Statute. Therefore, the Court weaseled their way out of the plain language with a shady argument about statistics in order to allow them to find the Statute ambiguous which allowed them to defer to the Agency under the Chevron Doctrine.