Court of Appeals May-June Session: Arguments of Interest for May 30, 2017

The Court of Appeals begins its final argument session before the summer recess on Tuesday, May 30th.  This is a short one-week session with only three days of argument, as is typical for the May-June Session.  Today, there are three cases on the argument docket ( the Court’s case summaries can be found here), which bring before the Court the following issues: (1) whether the State’s education funding formula satisfies the New York Constitution’s requirement that the State provide all students with a sound, basic education, and whether allegations that funding is inadequate for a few school districts can implicate the funding formula for all district’s statewide; (2) whether a criminal defendant should have been granted a mistrial where a juror expressed that she was unable to put aside her emotions in deciding the case; and (3) whether New York’s penal statutes criminalizing assisted suicide apply to physicians who provide aid-in-dying services to terminally ill patients and, if so, whether the statutes violate due process or equal protection under the New York Constitution.

No. 75     Aristy-Farer v State of New York; New Yorkers for Students’ Educational Rights v State of New York

This case is the logical follow up to the series of school funding cases known as Campaign for Fiscal Equity that the Court decided between 1995 and 2006. In CFE, the Court held that New York’s education system failed to provide students with a “sound basic education” as required under the Education Article of the New York Constitution (see Campaign for Fiscal Equity v State of New York, 86 NY2d 307 [1995] [“CFE I”]; CFE II, 100 NY2d 893 [2003]; CFE III, 8 NY3d 14 [2006]).  In CFE II, the Court held that funding for schools across the State was too low to satisfy the Constitution’s requirements, and then in CFE III, declared that the State’s chosen funding formula in response to CFE II was not unreasonable.

Following the Court’s CFE rulings, the State adopted a new funding formula called Foundation Aid, which called for the increase of state funding for education in excess of $5 billion over 4 years.  The State followed through on the planned increases for the first two years, but when the recession hit in 2008, the plan was scrapped.  The increase was cut for the 2009-2010 school year and significantly reduced in the years following.  

These reductions, the plaintiffs’ alleged, brought the State once again beneath the constitutionally guaranteed education funding floor, and contravened the Court’s decisions in CFE.  So, the plaintiffs sued the State once again, alleging that the systemic funding failures in Syracuse and New York City show that the State’s funding formula violates the New York Constitution’s guarantee of a sound basic education. 

Supreme Court denied the State’s motions to dismiss the cases, and the Appellate Division, First Department affirmed.  According to the First Department, the central holding of CFE III “was an unambiguous declaration that the State Constitution required education spending to be at least $1.93 billion higher for the City of New York (and, by extension, at least $2.45 billion statewide).” Thus, the Court held that the plaintiffs had plausibly alleged that the State’s post-recession funding reductions caused New York’s educational funding to fall beneath the floor set in CFE III.  The Court also held that the plaintiffs need not have alleged funding deficiencies in each and every school district statewide to state a claim, because the allegations of systemic funding deficiencies in one or two districts were enough that, if proven, the funding formula for all districts would have to be changed.

So now the Court of Appeals is tasked with deciding whether the plaintiffs’ allegations of constitutionally inadequate funding in Syracuse and New York City are sufficient to state a claim that the State’s education funding formula statewide violates the New York Constitution’s requirement that students be provided with a sound basic education.  It is interesting that the case is at the Court of Appeals following the denial of a motion to dismiss in the case. Typically, because further proceedings are still ongoing at Supreme Court, the First Department’s order is nonfinal, and the Court of Appeals would lack jurisdiction to review it. Here, however, because the First Department thought that this case was important, it granted the State leave to appeal on a certified question.  In that case, the Court of Appeals’ finality rule falls away, and the Court can review the nonfinal order.  That’s important in a case like this one, where the Court could decide that the plaintiffs’ allegations are not sufficient and dismiss the case without need for further proceedings. This will be an interesting case to watch.

The First Department’s order can be found here.

No. 77     Myers v Schneiderman

Is physician-assisted suicide legal in New York, or protected by the New York Constitution? Those are the questions that the Court of Appeals will answer in Myers.  

In this case, physicians, terminally ill patients, and an advocacy group brought a declaratory judgment action against State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, asking the courts to declare that a practice known as aid-in-dying (where physicians prescribe a lethal dose of medicine upon a terminally ill patient’s request) is distinct from suicide and, thus, not subject to the New York Penal Law criminalization of assisted suicide.  In the alternative, the plaintiffs argued, even if the Penal Law applies to aid-in-dying practices, the assisted suicide provisions violate the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses of the New York Constitution.

Supreme Court dismissed the suit, and the Appellate Division, First Department affirmed.  The Court declared that physicians that provide aid-in-dying treatment to patients can be prosecuted under New York’s assisted suicide penal statute because there is a clear caustive link between the lethal dose of prescription drugs and the terminally ill patient’s death.  The Court also rejected the plaintiffs’ constitutional challenges, relying on the United States Supreme Court’s holdings in Vacco v Quill (521 US 793 [1997]) and Washington v Glucksberg (521 US 702 [1997]) that enforcing such statutes against physicians who prescribe lethal medication for terminally ill patients does not violate federal equal protection or due process rights.

On appeal, the plaintiffs’ argue that the First Department’s dictionary definition interpretation of the term “suicide” in the Penal Law was improper, as aid-in-dying is a voluntary treatment chosen by a mentally able person, just in the same way as the patient may decide to refuse medical treatment.  Further, the plaintiffs argue, a lot has changed since the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Vacco, and the Court of Appeals should consider whether the New York Constitution offers more protection for aid-in-dying services. 

The First Department’s order can be found here.

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