Serrano v. Priest 5 Cal. 3d 584, 487 P.2d 1241, 96 Cal. Rptr 601 (1971)

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SERRANO v. PRIEST 5 Cal. 3d 584, 487 P.2d 1241, 96 Cal. Rptr 601 (1971)

This decision of the California Supreme Court produced a flurry of hope that the disgraceful inequalities in the financing of public schools might fall to an equal protection attack. Two years after the Serrano decision, the Supreme Court of the United States dashed that hope in san antonio independent school district v. rodriguez (1973).

Public schools throughout the nation are financed in major part through reliance on the local property tax. School districts that are property-wealthy thus can levy relatively low taxes and support their schools at high levels of spending per pupil. Poor districts, however, must levy taxes at much higher rates in order to spend at much lower levels per pupil. The California court in Serrano held this system unconstitutional, 6–1, both under the equal protection clause of the fourteenth amendment and under parallel provisions of the state constitution. Because the decision merely reversed a trial court's determination that the complaint had not stated a valid constitutional claim, and remanded the case for trial, it was not a final judgment and was not reviewable by the United States Supreme Court. Similarly, the ruling on state constitutional law was an adequate state ground, insulating the case from Supreme Court review.

The California court's opinion was devoted mainly to a discussion of the equal protection clause. Two grounds were found for subjecting the school finance scheme to strict scrutiny : the interest in education was held to be a fundamental interest, and wealth discrimination was held to be a suspect classification. Absent a showing of a compelling state interest justifying the inequalities in the state's statutory scheme, that scheme must fall.

The Supreme Court's Rodriguez decision, rejecting both the California court's bases for strict scrutiny, ended Serrano' s brief influence on the course of federal constitutional doctrine. But other state courts reached similar results on the basis of their own state constitutions, and in California itself Serrano produced significant efforts to restructure public school finance.

Kenneth L. Karst
(1986)