487 U.S. 450 (1988), 86-7113, Kadrmas v. Dickinson Public Schools

Docket Nº:No. 86-7113.
Citation:487 U.S. 450, 108 S.Ct. 2481, 101 L.Ed.2d 399, 56 U.S.L.W. 4777
Party Name:Kadrmas v. Dickinson Public Schools
Case Date:June 24, 1988
Court:United States Supreme Court

Page 450

487 U.S. 450 (1988)

108 S.Ct. 2481, 101 L.Ed.2d 399, 56 U.S.L.W. 4777



Dickinson Public Schools

No. 86-7113.

United States Supreme Court

June 24, 1988

Argued March 30, 1988



Under North Dakota statutes, thinly populated school districts are authorized to "reorganize" themselves into larger districts so that education can be provided more efficiently. Reorganization proposals must include provisions for transporting students to and from their homes. Appellee Dickinson Public Schools, which is relatively populous, has chosen not to participate in such a reorganization. In 1973, Dickinson's School Board instituted door-to-door bus service and began charging a fee for such transportation. In 1979, the State enacted a statute authorizing nonreorganized school districts like Dickinson to charge a fee for schoolbus service, not to exceed the district's estimated cost of providing the service. Appellants are a Dickinson schoolchild (Sarita Kadrmas) and her mother. In 1985, when the Kadrmas family refused to agree to the busing fee and began transporting Sarita to school privately, appellants filed a state court action seeking to enjoin appellees from collecting any fee for the bus service. The action was dismissed on the merits, and the Supreme Court of North Dakota affirmed, holding that the 1979 statute does not violate state law or the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The court rejected appellants' contention that the statute unconstitutionally discriminates on the basis of wealth. It also rejected the contention that the distinction drawn by the statute between reorganized and nonreorganized school districts violates the Equal Protection Clause.


1. There is no merit to appellees' contention that, because Mrs. Kadrmas signed contracts for schoolbus service, and made partial payments thereon, after the State Supreme Court's decision, and because Sarita has since been "enjoying the benefits" of the bus service, appellants are estopped from pursuing this appeal. The school board's authority to offer the benefit of subsidized bus transportation is not given by the challenged statute, but by other provisions of state law. The fee that Dickinson is permitted to charge under the 1979 statute is a burden, rather than a benefit, to appellants, and they are not estopped from raising an equal protection challenge to the statute that imposes that burden on them. Fahey v. Mallonee, 332 U.S. 245, distinguished. Nor is there any merit to appellees' suggestion that an Article III "case or controversy"

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is lacking because execution of the bus service contracts rendered this case "moot." A decision in appellants' favor may relieve them from paying the balance owing under the bus service contracts, and would relieve them of future assessments under the authority of the 1979 statute. Because Sarita was only nine years old at the time of trial, and because there are younger children in the family, the ongoing and concrete nature of the controversy is readily apparent. Pp. 456-457.

2. The 1979 statute does not violate the Equal Protection Clause. Pp. 457-465.

(a) Applying a form of strict or "heightened" scrutiny to the North Dakota statute would not be supported by precedent. Statutes having different effects on the wealthy and the poor are not, on that account alone, subject to strict equal protection scrutiny. Nor is education a "fundamental right" that triggers strict scrutiny when government interferes with an individual's access to it. The "heightened scrutiny" standard of review -- which is less demanding than "strict scrutiny" but more demanding that the standard rational relation test -- has generally been applied only in cases that involved discriminatory classifications based on sex or illegitimacy. Plyler v. Doe, 457 U.S. 202, where a heightened scrutiny standard was used to invalidate a State's denial to the children of illegal aliens of the free public education that it made available to other residents, has not been extended beyond its unique circumstances, [108 S.Ct. 2484] and does not control here. Moreover, decisions invalidating laws that barred indigent litigants from using the judicial process in circumstances where they had no alternative to that process are inapposite here. Applying the rational relation test, a State's decision to allow local school boards the option of charging patrons a user fee for bus service is constitutionally permissible. The Constitution does not require that such service be provided at all, and choosing to offer the service does not entail a constitutional obligation to offer it for free. Encouraging local school districts to provide bus service is a legitimate state purpose, and it is rational for the State to refrain from undermining its objective with a rule requiring that general revenues be used to subsidize an optional service that will benefit a minority of the district's families. Pp. 457-462.

(b) The distinction drawn in the 1979 statute between reorganized and nonreorganized school districts does not create an equal protection violation. Social and economic legislation like the 1979 statute carries with it a presumption of constitutionality that can only be overcome by a clear showing of arbitrariness and irrationality. The explanation of the statute offered by appellees and the State -- which relates to encouraging school district reorganization and more effective school systems -- is adequate to justify the distinction it draws among districts. Appellants

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have failed to carry the heavy burden of demonstrating that the statute is both arbitrary and irrational. Pp. 462-465.

402 N.W.2d 897, affirmed.

O'CONNOR, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which REHNQUIST, C.J., and WHITE, SCALIA, and KENNEDY, JJ., joined. MARSHALL, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which BRENNAN, J., joined, post, p. 466. STEVENS, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which BLACKMUN, J., joined, post, p. 472.

O'CONNOR, J., lead opinion

JUSTICE O'CONNOR delivered the opinion of the Court.

Appellants urge us to hold that the Equal Protection Clause forbids a State to allow some local school boards, but not others, to assess a fee for transporting pupils between their homes and the public schools. Applying well-established equal protection principles, we reject this claim and affirm the constitutionality of the challenged statute.


North Dakota is a sparsely populated State, with many people living on isolated farms and ranches. One result has

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been that some children, as late as the mid-20th century, were educated in

the one-room school where, in many cases, there [we]re twenty or more pupils with one teacher attempting in crowded conditions and under other disadvantages to give instructions in all primary grades.

Herman v. Medicine Lodge School Dist. No. 8, 71 N.W.2d 323, 328 (N.D.1955). The State has experimented with various ameliorative devices at different times in its history. Beginning in 1907, for example, it has adopted a series of policies that,

in certain circumstances required, and in other circumstances merely authorized, [local public] school districts to participate in transporting or providing compensation for transporting students to school.

402 N.W.2d 897, 900 (N.D.1987) (opinion below).

[108 S.Ct. 2485] Since 1947, the legislature has authorized and encouraged thinly populated school districts to consolidate or "reorganize" themselves into larger districts so that education can be provided more efficiently. See Herman, supra, at 328; N.D.Cent.Code, ch. 15-27.3 (Supp.1987). Reorganization proposals, which obviously must contemplate an increase in the distance that some children travel to school, are required by law to include provisions for transporting students back and forth from their homes. See § 15-27.3-10. The details of these provisions may vary from district to district, but once a reorganization plan is adopted, the transportation provisions can be changed only with the approval of the voters. See §§ 15-27.3-10 and 15-27.3-19.

Appellee Dickinson Public Schools, which serves a relatively populous area, has chosen not to participate in such a reorganization. Until 1973, this school system provided free bus service to students in outlying areas, but the "pickup points" for this service were often at considerable distances from the students' homes. After a plebiscite of the bus users, Dickinson's School Board instituted door-to-door bus service and began charging a fee. During the period relevant to this case, about 13% of the students rode the bus;

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their parents were charged $97 per year for one child or $150 per year for two children. 402 N.W.2d at 898. Such fees covered approximately 11% of the cost of providing the bus service, and the remainder was provided from state and local tax revenues. Ibid.

In 1979, the State enacted the legislation at issue in this case. This statute expressly indicates that nonreorganized school districts, like Dickinson, may charge a fee for transporting students to school; such fees, however, may not exceed the estimated cost to the school district of providing the service. See N.D.Cent.Code § 15-34.2-06.1 (1981 and Supp.1987). The current version of this provision, which for convenience will be referred to as the "1979 statute," states in full:

Charge for bus transportation optional. The school board of any school district which has not been reorganized may charge a fee for schoolbus service provided to anyone riding on buses provided by the school district. For schoolbus service which was started prior to July 1, 1981, the total fees collected may not exceed an amount equal to the...

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