Court Throws Out Major Literacy Ruling in Detroit schools

DETROIT (AP) -- A federal appeals court on Tuesday threw out a groundbreaking decision that said Detroit students had a constitutional right to education and literacy, just days after Michigan's governor settled the case by agreeing to seek millions from the Legislature to improve education.

The 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals set aside an April decision by one of its panels, a rare step. But the deal reached by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer still will stand, a lawyer for students said.

Detroit students claimed poor conditions in schools had made learning impossible. In a 2-1 opinion last month, judges Eric Clay and Jane Stranch said there’s a constitutional right to “access to literacy,” even if the U.S. Supreme Court has never declared it.

The full 6th Circuit has the power to scratch a decision and hear arguments again with multiple judges if a case “involves a question of exceptional importance,” according to its rules.

“It’s not a legally binding decision anymore,” said Evan Caminker, co-counsel for students and the former dean at University of Michigan law school.

Last week, Whitmer, a Democrat, said she was settling the case. She agreed to ask the Republican-controlled Legislature to spend at least $94.4 million for literacy programs in the Detroit district and take other steps. The seven plaintiffs would also share $280,000 for their own education.

“Students in Detroit faced obstacles to their education that inhibited their ability to read, obstacles they never should have faced,” Whitmer said.

The lawsuit began when Gov. Rick Snyder, a Republican, was in office.

The 6th Circuit's intervention “does not affect the settlement,” Caminker said. “The settlement is a binding agreement between the parties.”

There was no immediate response from Whitmer's office to a request for comment.

Opinions by the 6th Circuit set legal precedent in federal courts in Michigan, Ohio, Tennessee and Kentucky. The opinions also can be cited by lawyers and judges in federal courts around the country.

Caminker said the governor agreed to settle the case because there was momentum in favor of the students after the decision by Clay and Stranch.

“The community was pleased with the decision. It was the right time for the governor to reaffirm her commitment to literacy,” he said.