Robinson v. Cahill

Citation303 A.2d 273,62 N.J. 473
PartiesKenneth ROBINSON, an infant, by his parent and guardian ad litem, Ernestine Robinson, et al., Plaintiffs-Respondents, v. William T. CAHILL, Governor of the State of New Jersey, et al., Defendants- Appellants.
Decision Date03 April 1973
CourtUnited States State Supreme Court (New Jersey)

Page 473

62 N.J. 473
303 A.2d 273
Kenneth ROBINSON, an infant, by his parent and guardian ad
litem, Ernestine Robinson, et al., Plaintiffs-Respondents,
William T. CAHILL, Governor of the State of New Jersey, et
al., Defendants- Appellants.
Supreme Court of New Jersey.
Argued Jan. 9, 1973.
Decided April 3, 1973.

Page 479

[303 A.2d 276] Stephen Skillman, Asst. Atty. Gen., for defendants-appellants (Stephen G. Weiss, East Orange, Sp. Counsel; David S. Litwin and Mary Ann Burgess, Deputy Attys. Gen., on the brief; George F. Kugler, Jr., Atty. Gen., attorney).

Harold J. Ruvoldt, Jr., Jersey City, for plaintiffs-respondents (Ruvoldt & Ruvoldt, Jersey City, attorneys, Sp. Counsel to Samuel A. Scott, Corp. Counsel of City of Jersey City, William A. Drier, Corp. Counsel of City of Plainfield, Joseph A. LaCava, Corp. Counsel of City of Paterson, and Julius Fielo, Corp. Counsel of City of East Orange).

Paul Tractenberg, Newark and David G. Lubell, New York City, of the New York bar, for amici curiae Education Committee, Newark Chapter, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey (Mary K. O'Melveny, New York City, of the New York bar, of counsel; William J. Bender and Frank Askin, Newark, attorneys).

Arthur J. Sullivan, Jr., Passaic, for amici curiae City of Clifton and William Holster.

William H. Hyatt, Jr., Newark, for amicus curiae Permanent Commission on State School Support (Pitney, Hardin & Kipp, Newark, attorneys).

Page 480

Melville D. Miller, Jr., Trenton, for amicus curiae New Jersey State Office of Legal Services.

The opinion of the Court was delivered by


This case involves the constitutionality of statutes providing for the financing of elementary and secondary schools. The trial court found the existing system discriminates against students in districts with low real property ratables and also discriminates among taxpayers by imposing unequal burdens. These discriminations were held to violate the equal protection mandates of the Federal and State Constitutions. They were held also to violate other provisions of the State Constitution relating to public education and to the assessment of real property for taxation, to which we will refer later. The conclusion was that the State must finance the system out of State revenues raised by levies imposed uniformly on taxpayers of the same class. The holding was prospective only, and judicial relief was withheld until January 1, 1974 to permit the Legislature to adopt another plan, with the proviso that if a proper plan is not enacted by January 1, 1973, certain State moneys appropriated for distribution to school districts shall be distributed in harmony with the opinion rather than according to the statute's terms. 118 N.J.Super. 223, 287 A.2d 187 (Law Div. 1972).

We certified the appeals before argument in the Appellate Division and stayed the operation of the judgment until our further order.

The system of meeting the current costs of our public schools is described in the trial court's opinion, 118 N.J.Super. at 228--231, 287 A.2d 187, and need not be repeated other than in its broad outlines. The funds are derived from three sources: local Ad valorem taxation of real property, State aid, and federal aid. The trial court found that local taxes currently yielded 67% Of the statewide total of operating expenses, State aid yielded 28% And federal aid the balance of 5%. 118 N.J.Super. at 231, 287 A.2d 187.

Page 481

It is agreed there is a disparity in the number of dollars spent per pupil, depending upon the district of residence. As to the local property tax, the base is the taxable real property within the several districts, and of course the amount of taxable real property within a district is not related to the number of students within it. Although there is no statutory maximum upon the local tax for current educational expenses, there are practical limitations [303 A.2d 277] arising from the demands for other local services upon the same tax base. And it is clear also that State aid does not operate substantially to equalize the sums available per pupil.

There was testimony with respect to the correlation between dollar input per pupil and the end product of the educational process. Obviously equality of dollar input will not assure equality in educational results. There are individual and group disadvantages which play a part. Local conditions, too, are telling, for example, insofar as they attract or repel teachers who are free to choose one community rather than another. But it is nonetheless clear that there is a significant connection between the sums expended and the quality of the educational opportunity. And of course the Legislature has acted upon that premise in providing State aid on formulas designed to ameliorate in part the dollar disparities generated by a system of local taxation. Hence we accept the proposition that the quality of educational opportunity does depend in substantial measure upon the number of dollars invested, notwithstanding that the impact upon students may be unequal because of other factors, natural or environmental.

We accept also the trial court's findings of fact with respect to the existing disparities in expenditures per pupil, and we agree that the present situation cannot be reconciled with relevant constitutional requirements. But we do not accept the constitutional thesis expounded by the trial court. That thesis has implications beyond the subject of public education, and bears also upon the options available to the

Page 482

Legislature in meeting the State's obligation with respect to that specific subject matter.

We will consider first whether the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment and the equal protection provision implicit in Art. I, 1, of our State Constitution of 1947, Bailey v. Engelman, 56 N.J. 54, 55, 264 A.2d 442 (1970), reach our statutory scheme. It is urged, and the trial court agreed, that equal protection was denied both the students and the local taxpayers.

It must be evident that the rudimentary scheme of local government is implicated by the proposition that the equal protection clause dictates statewide uniformity. West Morris Regional Board of Education v. Sills, 58 N.J. 464, 477, 279 A.2d 609 (1971), cert. denied 404 U.S. 986, 92 S.Ct. 450, 30 L.Ed.2d 370 (1971); see James v. Valtierra, 402 U.S. 137, 142--143, 91 S.Ct. 1331, 1334, 28 L.Ed.2d 678, 683 (1971). This is so unless it can be said that the equal protection clause holds education to be a thing apart from other essential services which also depend upon local legislative decision with respect to the dollar amount to be invested. As to any service to which equal protection is found to apply, it would follow that if the moneys are raised by local taxation in a way which permits a different dollar expenditure per affected resident, the program is invalid as to the beneficiaries unless a State aid program fills in the gap. It would then follow that a State aid program which did not neutralize local inequalities would itself deny equal protection as to beneficiaries; and although it is not urged upon us that every federal statute must abide by that precept, we see no reason why that constitutional mandate would not also prevail at the federal level if the basic premise

Page 483

is sound. 1 Thus a federal program[303 A.2d 278] which provides funds on a matching or conditional basis with State or local option to participate or to choose a level of participation would be invidious as to those unequally benefited. That of course has not been the prevalent assumption. See statutes involved in Charles C. Steward Machine Co. v. Davis, 301 U.S. 548, 57 S.Ct. 883, 81 L.Ed. 1279 (1937); and James v. Valtierra, Supra, 402 U.S. 137, 91 S.Ct. 1331, 28 L.Ed.2d 678. With respect to the categorical welfare programs under the Social Security Act which deal with the most basic need of food and shelter, the federal legislation does not comport with the constitutional standards we are asked to find. Although local option permitted by the statute was an underlying fact in the decisions of the United States Supreme Court, the Court did not intimate that local option generates a constitutional problem. See King v. Smith, 392 U.S. 309, 318--319, 88 S.Ct. 2128, 2133--2134, 20 L.Ed.2d 1118, 1126 (1968); Rosado v. Wyman, 397 U.S. 397, 407--408, 90 S.Ct. 1207, 1215--1216, 25 L.Ed.2d 442, 453 (1970); Dandridge v. Williams, 397 U.S. 471, 90 S.Ct. 1153, 25 L.Ed.2d 491 (1970); see also Bailey v. Engelman, Supra, 56 N.J. 54, 57, 264 A.2d 442, and Motyka v. McCorkle, 58 N.J. 165, 169, 276 A.2d 129 (1971).

The Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit recently rejected sundry constitutional challenges to the welfare programs under the Social Security Act. The plaintiffs there contended that the federal government, having entered the field, was obliged to assume the entire cost of welfare, and that in any event due process and equal protection were

Page 484

denied because the federal contribution to the States was made under a formula based upon per capita income of the States rather than the number of persons in need. City of New York v. Richardson, 473 F.2d 923 (2 Cir. 1973). Those propositions were rejected but that litigation suggests the distance the judiciary would travel if it found the Constitution dictated such single answers to the myriad, complex problems of today.

In West Morris Regional Board of Education v. Sills, Supra, 58 N.J. 464, 279 A.2d 609, we dismissed a claim that the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment was offended by a statute providing for transportation of only those students at private schools who resided in school districts which furnished such transportation to public schools. We said 'at least as of now, * * * there is no constitutional fiat that educational expenditures be identical for all students throughout...

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