Horton v. Meskill

Decision Date19 April 1977
PartiesBarnaby HORTON et al. v. Thomas J. MESKILL et al. Peter D. GRACE v. Thomas J. MESKILL et al.
CourtConnecticut Supreme Court

David J. Della-Bitta, Asst. Atty. Gen., with whom were Bernard F. McGovern, Jr., Asst. Atty. Gen., and, on the brief, Carl R. Ajello, Atty. Gen., for appellants-appellees (defendant state officials in both cases).

Maurice T. FitzMaurice, Hartford, for appellees-appellants (plaintiffs in both cases).

Stephen Pierson, Darien, and James F. Altham, Jr., New Haven, each filed a brief as amicus curiae.

Before HOUSE, C. J., and LOISELLE, BOGDANSKI, LONGO and BARBER, JJ.

HOUSE, Chief Justice.

These appeals have been consolidated for presentation to this court because they present identical basic facts and identical questions of law. Pursuant to a stipulation approved by the trial court, it has been agreed that any judgments in the cases against the defendants shall be fully binding on their successors in office without the necessity for substitutions of parties defendant owing to a change in the personnel occupying those offices.

The cases were brought seeking (1) a declaratory judgment that the system of financing public elementary and secondary education in this state, at least as it affects the town of Canton, violates the Connecticut and the United States constitutions; (2) an order in equity directing the defendants to cease implementing the present financing system, at least as it affects the town of Canton, except as necessary to provide an orderly transition to a constitutional system for financing public schools; (3) an order that the court retain jurisdiction to assure a transition with all deliberate speed to a constitutional system of financing public education; and (4) any other equitable relief the court should deem proper.

In essence, each action sought by declaratory judgment a judicial determination as to whether the Connecticut educational finance system, at least as it existed at the time of trial (1974), violates constitutional equal rights and equal protection guarantees and is constitutionally mandated "appropriate legislation"; Conn.Const. Art. VIII § 1; to provide free public elementary and secondary schools in the state. The questions presented are not only of great importance but of considerable complexity, and it is of small comfort to note that members of the judiciary throughout the country are also being faced with the same or similar complex questions. 1 It is not inappropriate at the start of our consideration of the appeals to express a word of appreciation and commendation for the carefully prepared and helpful briefs submitted by counsel for the parties and by the amici curiae, and for the thorough and exhaustive record submitted by the trial court.

In order to facilitate an understanding of the plaintiffs' claims, it is virtually essential to have at hand the sections of the relevant statutes and provisions of the state and federal constitutions on which the plaintiffs rely. They are set out in footnotes 2-9. 2

345678

9

When the present actions were brought in 1974, the plaintiff Horton was enrolled in kindergarten in the Canton Elementary School, the plaintiff Barnhart in the sixth grade of the Canton Middle School, and the plaintiff Grace in the seventh grade in the Canton High School. The defendants included the governor, the treasurer and the comptroller of the state, the state commissioner of education, and the members of the state board of education, of the Canton board of education, and of the Canton board of finance.

The portions of the judgments of the Superior Court material to these appeals declared that the present system of financing public education in Connecticut, principally embodied in §§ 10-240 and 10-241 of the General Statutes, insofar as the system purports to delegate to the town of Canton the duty of raising taxes to operate free public elementary and secondary schools and insofar as it purports to delegate to Canton the duty of operating and maintaining free public elementary and secondary schools violates the constitution of Connecticut, article first, §§ 1 and 20, and article eighth, § 1; declared that the present system of financing public education in Connecticut does not violate the fourteenth amendment to the constitution of the United States; held that the doctrine of sovereign immunity is not a valid defense to this action; and withheld any ruling on the plaintiffs' ancillary claims for relief and retained jurisdiction until further orders.

The defendant state officials, hereinafter the defendants, appealed from the judgments and the plaintiffs cross appealed from the judgments insofar as they declared that the present system of financing public education in the state does not violate the fourteenth amendment to the constitution of the United States.

On their appeal, the defendants have pressed five assignments of error that relate to the trial court's findings, conclusions, and rulings on claims of law. The first two assignments of error pertain to the trial court's findings concerning the quality of education in Canton and the relation between expenditures and the quality of education. They also pertain to the court's findings relevant to the effect of the existing system of financing education in the state, which system relies heavily on local property taxes and leads to a difference in revenue available to different towns for support of the public schools.

The third assignment of error is addressed to the conclusions which were reached by the court as a result of its findings of fact and which led to the ultimate conclusion expressed in its judgment "that the present system of financing public education in Connecticut, principally embodied in §§ 10-240 and 10-241 of the General Statutes, insofar as the system purports to delegate to Canton the duty of raising taxes to operate free public elementary and secondary schools and insofar as it purports to delegate to Canton the duty of operating and maintaining free elementary and secondary schools violates article first, §§ 1 and 20, and article eighth, § 1, of the Connecticut Constitution."

The defendants' fourth assignment of error is that the trial court erred in failing to conclude that only two statutory sections, namely §§ 10-240 and 10-241, which provide the system for financing education, are unconstitutional. The fifth assignment claims that the trial court erred in overruling the defendants' claims of law which are substantially similar in subject but opposite in result to the conclusions of law claimed as error in the third assignment.

Before turning to a consideration of the assignments of error addressed to the merits of the appeal, we turn first to the question of the jurisdiction of the trial court to act in these cases. This issue was raised by the defendants' pleas of sovereign immunity which the trial court concluded were not valid defenses to these actions.

In Connecticut, we have long recognized the validity of the common-law principle that the state cannot be sued without its consent and that since the state can act only through its officers and agents a suit against a state officer is in effect one against the sovereign state. Textron, Inc. v. Wood, 167 Conn. 334, 339, 355 A.2d 307; Fidelity Bank v. State, 166 Conn. 251, 253, 348 A.2d 633; Baker v. Ives, 162 Conn. 295, 298, 294 A.2d 290; State v. Kilburn, 81 Conn. 9, 11, 69 A. 1028. This rule had its origin in the ancient common law, predicated on the principle that the king, being the fountainhead of justice, could not be sued in his own courts. 1 Pollack & Maitland, History of English Law (2d Ed.) pp. 514-18. While the principle of sovereign immunity is deeply rooted in our common law, it has, nevertheless, been modified and adapted to the American concept of constitutional government where the source of governmental power and authority is not vested by divine right in a ruler but rests in the people themselves who have adopted constitutions creating governments with defined and limited powers and courts to interpret these basic laws. The source of the sovereign power of the state is now the constitution which created it, and it is now recognized that, as Mr. Justice Holmes wrote: "A sovereign is exempt from suit, not because of any formal conception or obsolete theory, but on the logical and practical ground that there can be no legal right as against the authority that makes the law on which the right depends." Kawananakoa v. Polyblank, 205 U.S. 349, 353, 27 S.Ct. 526, 527, 51 L.Ed. 834; see Bergner v. State, 144 Conn. 282, 285, 130 A.2d 293.

The practical and logical basis of the doctrine is today recognized to rest on this principle and on the hazard "that the subjection of the state and federal governments to private litigation might constitute a serious interference with the performance of their functions and with their control over their respective instrumentalities, funds, and property." Block, "Suits against Government Officers and the Sovereign Immunity Doctrine," 59 Harv.L.Rev. 1060, 1061. As the author of that article makes clear, adherence to the doctrine of sovereign immunity does not mean that all suits against government officers, since they are in effect suits against the government, must be barred. As he suggests (p. 1080): "In those cases in which it is alleged that the defendant officer is proceeding under an unconstitutional statute or in excess of his statutory authority, the interest in the protection of the plaintiff's right to be free from the consequences of such action outweighs the interest served by the sovereign immunity doctrine. Moreover, the government cannot justifiably claim interference with its functions when the acts complained of are unconstitutional or unauthorized by statute. On the other hand, where no substantial claim is made that the defendant...

To continue reading

Request your trial
271 cases
  • Graham v. Comm'r of Transp., SC 19867
    • United States
    • Connecticut Supreme Court
    • November 20, 2018
    ...their control over their respective instrumentalities, funds, and property." (Internal quotation marks omitted.) Horton v. Meskill , 172 Conn. 615, 624, 376 A.2d 359 (1977). Thus, the doctrine of sovereign immunity "operates as a strong presumption in favor of the state's immunity from liab......
  • Commission on Human Rights v. BD. OF EDUC.
    • United States
    • Connecticut Supreme Court
    • August 31, 2004
    ...Act 79-128 indicates that its main impetus was as part of the legislative response to this court's decision in Horton v. Meskill, 172 Conn. 615, 648-49, 376 A.2d 359 (1977), in which we held the state's educational funding formula unconstitutional under our state constitution. See generally......
  • State v. Gethers
    • United States
    • Connecticut Supreme Court
    • September 3, 1985
    ...that, "although we fully recognize the primary independent vitality of the provisions of our own constitution"; Horton v. Meskill, 172 Conn. 615, 641, 376 A.2d 359 (1977); "the decisions of the United States Supreme Court defining federal constitutional rights are, at the least, persuasive ......
  • Pereira v. State Bd. of Educ.
    • United States
    • Connecticut Supreme Court
    • March 13, 2012
    ...receive suitable educational opportunities); Sheff v. O'Neill, 238 Conn. 1, 46, 678 A.2d 1267 (1996) (same); Horton v. Meskill, 172 Conn. 615, 649, 376 A.2d 359 (1977) (same); see also General Statutes § 10-4a (''the educational interests of the state shall include, but not be limited to, t......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
9 books & journal articles
  • State courts and school funding: a fifty-state analysis.
    • United States
    • Albany Law Review Vol. 63 No. 4, June 2000
    • June 22, 2000
    ...II"), 557 P.2d 929 (Cal. 1976) (P); Lujan v. Colorado State Bd. of Educ., 649 P.2d 1005 (Colo. 1982) (S); Horton v. Meskill ("Horton I"), 376 A.2d 359 (Conn. 1977) (P); Coalition for Adequacy and Fairness in Sch. Funding, Inc. v. Chiles, 680 So. 2d 400 (Fla. 1996) (S); McDaniel v. Thomas, 2......
  • GLIMPSES OF REPRESENTATION-REINFORCEMENT IN STATE COURTS.
    • United States
    • Constitutional Commentary Vol. 36 No. 2, September 2021
    • September 22, 2021
    ...down California's property-tax based system because it made the quality of a child's education a function of wealth); Horlon v. Meskill, 376 A.2d 359 (Conn. 1977) (holding that the right to education is so fundamental that it requires strict scrutiny, and striking down Connecticut's propert......
  • Educational issues and judicial oversight.
    • United States
    • Albany Law Review Vol. 71 No. 4, September 2008
    • September 22, 2008
    ...S.W.2d 391,392 (Tex. 1989). (58) Id. at 393. (59) See Serrano v. Priest (Serrano II), 557 P.2d 929, 951 (Cal. 1976); Horton v. Meskill, 376 A.2d 359, 373 (Conn. 1977); Rose, 790 S.W.2d at 212; Skeen v. State, 505 N.W.2d 299, 313-15 (Minn. 1993); Pauley v. Kelly, 255 S.E.2d 859, 878 (W. Va. ......
  • The right to a "minimally adequate education" as guaranteed by the Mississippi Constitution.
    • United States
    • Albany Law Review Vol. 61 No. 5, August 1998
    • August 6, 1998
    ...Educ., 649 P.2d 1005 (Colo. 1982) (challenging school financing system on state and federal equal protection grounds); Horton v. Meskill, 376 A.2d 359 (Conn. 1977) (basing claim on state equal rights and equal protection grounds); McDaniel v. Thomas, 285 S.E.2d 156 (Ga. 1981) (challenging t......
  • Request a trial to view additional results

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT