Porta v. Klagholz

Citation19 F.Supp.2d 290
Decision Date04 September 1998
Docket NumberCivil Action No. 98-2350 (JBS).
PartiesJerry PORTA, Plaintiff, v. Leo F. KLAGHOLZ, Commissioner of New Jersey Department of Education, the State of New Jersey, the Galloway Township School District, the Jersey City School District, Galloway Kindergarten Charter School Inc., Soaring Heights Charter School, and John Does # 3 to # 100, Defendant.
CourtUnited States District Courts. 3th Circuit. United States District Courts. 3th Circuit. District of New Jersey

Thomas B. Duffy, Absecon, NJ, for Plaintiff.

Peter Verniero, Attorney General of New Jersey by John K. Worthington, DAG, Richard P. Hughes Justice Complex, Trenton, NJ, for Defendants, Leo Klagholz and the State of New Jersey.

Charlotte Kitler, General Counsel for The Jersey City Public Schools, Jersey City, NJ, for Defendant, Jersey City School District.

Fredric L. Shenkman, Goldenberg, Mackler, Sayegh & Mintz, P.C., Atlantic City, NJ, for Defendant, Galloway Kindergarten Charter Schools, Inc.

Jeremiah T. Healy, Oswin E. Hadley, Healy & Hadley, Jersey City, NJ, for Defendant, Soaring Heights Charter School.

FINDINGS OF FACT and CONCLUSIONS OF LAW

SIMANDLE, District Judge.

I. INTRODUCTION AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

Charter schools in New Jersey are a recent innovation through which public money funds the availability of a public education to pupils attending specially chartered schools under the Charter School Program Act of 1995, codified at N.J.S.A. 18A:36A-1, et seq. This case presents a challenge to the operation of two charter schools which hold classes in church buildings, in space leased from those churches. The principal issue is whether the state and local public educational authorities violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution by providing funds for a public charter school in leased church space under the circumstances here presented.

This case was tried without a jury on July 20, 1998. That hearing was a consolidation of the trial on the merits and plaintiff's motion for a preliminary injunction, as permitted under Fed.R.Civ.P. 65(a)(2). As explained below, the court finds that the plaintiff is not entitled to the relief sought. This Opinion constitutes the court's findings of fact and conclusions of law pursuant to Rule 52(a), Fed.R.Civ.P.

Plaintiff instituted this action on May 21, 1998 by filing a Complaint with this court, seeking declaratory and injunctive relief against the following defendants: Leo F. Klagholz, Commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Education; the State of New Jersey; the Galloway Township School District; the Galloway Kindergarten Charter Schools, Inc.; and John Does # 1 to # 100. The Complaint sought both general and specific relief. In general terms, plaintiff sought to restrain the State of New Jersey and the New Jersey Department of Education from permitting the operation of charter schools out of church buildings. More specifically, plaintiff sought to enjoin the operation of Galloway Kindergarten Charter School ("GKCS") in the premises of Saint Mark and All Saints Episcopal Church ("Saint Mark"), in Galloway Township, New Jersey, where it was at that time operating. At the request of plaintiff, the court issued an Order on the same day requiring all defendants to show cause as to why a temporary injunction should not be granted.

Plaintiff subsequently filed an Amended Complaint dated June 8, 1998, adding as defendants the Soaring Heights Charter School ("SHCS") and Jersey City School District. The relief sought was the same as in the initial Complaint, except that plaintiff also sought specifically to enjoin the operation of SHCS out of Riverside Assembly of God Church in Jersey City, New Jersey. The court amended its Order to Show Cause to include the added defendants and to postpone the hearing until July 20, 1998.

The Amended Complaint asserts that the operation of these charter schools in church facilities violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.1 Count One is brought under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging violations of the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, and seeking a declaratory judgment and preliminary and permanent restraints. (Compl. ¶ 24.) Count Two is brought under 28 U.S.C. §§ 2201 and 2202 (which provide for the imposition of declaratory judgments and any further relief based upon a declaratory judgment) and seeks essentially the same relief. The declaratory judgment sought by plaintiff is that "operating a public charter school inside a church is a violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment." The preliminary and permanent restraint sought by plaintiff is an injunction "restraining the defendants from operating or funding, as the case may be, a public charter school, including but not limited to GKCS and SHCS, inside a church in the future." (Compl.¶¶ 27-28.)

In lieu of an Answer, defendant the State of New Jersey filed a motion to dismiss plaintiff's Complaint. In addition to opposing the plaintiff's claims on the merits, the motion to dismiss asserted that the plaintiff's claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against the State and the State's Department of Education were barred by principles of sovereign immunity under the Eleventh Amendment. The State conceded, however, that plaintiff's claims for injunctive relief could proceed against defendant Leo F. Klagholz, Commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Education, in his individual capacity.

Defendant GKCS likewise filed a motion to dismiss in lieu of an Answer. GKCS asserted that its lease at the Saint Mark Church had ended, and that the school was no longer operating out of that facility. A certification to that effect by Master Teacher Deborah Nataloni was submitted in support of the motion. GKCS asserted that the claims against it should therefore be dismissed as moot.

As a result of settlement discussions prior to the trial, the parties announced at the beginning of trial on July 20, 1998, that plaintiff was withdrawing his claims against defendant GKCS. (Tr. at 6.)2 Both parties stipulated that they did not intend to seek attorneys fees under 42 U.S.C. § 1988, nor Rule 11 sanctions against the other.3 (Id.) An Order to this effect was subsequently filed by the court on July 23, 1998, dismissing with prejudice plaintiff's complaint against GKCS. The parties likewise stipulated that the plaintiff agreed to dismiss the State of New Jersey as a defendant, leaving undisturbed the claims against Commissioner Klagholz.4 (Tr. at 27-28.) An Order dismissing defendant the State of New Jersey's Motion to dismiss, and dismissing plaintiff's Complaint against the State of New Jersey in its entirety was subsequently filed by the court on July 27, 1998.

The trial without jury then proceeded on the same day, July 20, 1998, and the court heard testimony and received other evidence. Closing arguments were heard the following week.

II. PRELIMINARY QUESTIONS
A. Justiciability

As a threshold matter, the court must determine whether this case is properly before us such that we have the power to adjudicate it. The jurisdiction of federal courts is defined and limited by Article III of the Constitution. See, e.g., Flast v. Cohen, 392 U.S. 83, 94, 88 S.Ct. 1942, 20 L.Ed.2d 947 (1968). The judicial power of federal courts is constitutionally restricted to "cases" and "controversies" — that is, "questions presented in an adversary context ... capable of resolution through the judicial process". Id. at 95, 88 S.Ct. 1942. The question of whether the plaintiff has presented a case or controversy that is justiciable by the federal courts is addressed through inquiry into issues such as whether the plaintiff is in essence seeking an advisory opinion; whether the plaintiff has standing to bring the suit, and whether the controversy is moot. Id.

1. Prohibition of Advisory Opinions

The "core" of Article III's limitation on federal judicial power is that federal courts may not issue advisory opinions. E. Chemerinsky, Federal Jurisdiction at 47 (Little Brown, 1994); Flast, 392 U.S. at 96-97, 88 S.Ct. 1942. Accordingly, it is well established that two criteria must be met for a case to be justiciable: First, there must be "an actual dispute between adverse litigants," and second, there must be a "substantial likelihood that a federal court decision in favor of a claimant will bring about some change or have some effect." Chemerinsky at 48-50. It is permissible for a federal court to issue relief in the form of a declaratory judgment only so long as the above two justiciability requirements are met. See Nashville, C. & St. L. Ry. v. Wallace, 288 U.S. 249, 264, 53 S.Ct. 345, 77 L.Ed. 730 (1933).

As a threshold matter, it appears that part of the relief sought by plaintiff is not available from this court due to the limitations on federal court power outlined above. In addition to seeking an injunction restraining the operation of SHCS on the premises of Riverside Assembly of God Church and GKCS on the premises of Saint Mark, plaintiff's complaint also seeks a declaratory judgment that "operating a public charter school inside a Church is a violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution." (Am. Compl. at ¶ 27.) We have been presented with no authority (let alone binding authority) for the proposition that the operation of a public charter school in a church premises is per se a violation of the Establishment Clause. Thus it appears that plaintiff wishes for this court to issue that broad declaration as a new per se constitutional rule. It cannot be said that this question is an "actual dispute between adverse litigants," as we do not have before us all the parties who might now or at some time in the future intend to operate a public charter school from a church premises; rather, the only parties before us who are in an actual adversary relationship are the parties relating to the Soaring Heights Charter School...

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