In Partnership with The 74

Key excerpts from judges’ dissents in the Vergara ruling

Craig Clough | August 22, 2016



Beatriz and Elizabeth Vergara

Beatriz and Elizabeth Vergara, student-plantiffs in Vergara v. California.

The California Supreme Court today declined to review an appellate court ruling that overturned the landmark Vergara v. California teacher tenure case.

Here are key excerpts from the dissenting opinions of State Supreme Court Justice Mariano-Florentino Cuéllar and State Supreme Court Justice Goodwin Liu:


The nine schoolchildren who brought this action, along with the millions of children whose educational opportunities are affected every day by the challenged statutes, deserve to have their claims heard by this state’s highest court.


The Court of Appeal’s treatment of Group 1 is more problematic. In overturning the trial court’s judgment with respect to this group, the Court of Appeal said the group is not “an identifiable class of persons sufficient to maintain an equal protection challenge” because “to claim an equal protection violation [citations], group members must have some pertinent common characteristic other than the fact that they are assertedly harmed by a statute.” On this point, the Court of Appeal likely erred.


The two cases involve different yet complementary claims concerning the importance of resources and reform to improving the education system. Both cases ultimately present the same basic issue: whether the education clauses of our state Constitution guarantee a minimum level of quality below which our public schools cannot be permitted to fall. This issue is surely one of the most consequential to the future of California.


Despite the gravity of the trial court’s findings, despite the apparent error in the Court of Appeal’s equal protection analysis, and despite the undeniable statewide importance of the issues presented, the court decides that the serious claims raised by Beatriz Vergara and her eight student peers do not warrant our review. I disagree. As the state’s highest court, we owe the plaintiffs in this case, as well as schoolchildren throughout California, our transparent and reasoned judgment on whether the challenged statutes deprive a significant subset of students of their fundamental right to education and violate the constitutional guarantee of equal protection of the laws. I respectfully dissent from the denial of review.


Nothing in California’s Constitution or any other law supports the Court of Appeal’s reasoning.


When a fundamental right has been appreciably burdened, we apply strict scrutiny. The appellate court did not. Instead it erected a novel barrier — not only for Beatriz Vergara and her fellow student plaintiffs, but for all California litigants seeking to raise equal protection claims based on a fundamental right.


Beatriz Vergara and her fellow plaintiffs raise profound questions with implications for millions of students across California.They deserve an answer from this court. Difficult as it is to embrace the logic of the appellate court on this issue, it is even more difficult to allow that court’s decision to stay on the books without review in a case of enormous statewide importance.


These findings instead failed to justify a remedy, according to the Court of Appeal, because there was no identifiable group explicitly targeted or uniquely burdened by the statutes. This conclusion is, at best, in stark tension with settled law.


The harmful consequences to a child’s education caused by grossly ineffective teachers — the evidence for which the trial court found compelling — are no less grave than those resulting from a shortened period of instruction or financial shortfalls. In considering this case, we must respect the role of the representative branches of government and the public itself in shaping education policy. But our responsibility to honor the court’s proper constitutional role makes it as important for us to review a case that merits our attention as it is for us to avoid a dispute beyond the court’s purview. This case is the former. It squarely presents significant questions of state constitutional jurisprudence that our court, rather than the Legislature or the executive branch, is best suited to address.


There is no right without an adequate remedy. And no such remedy exists without review by a court of last resort when the decision of the appellate court, the importance of the case, and the question presented so clearly merit review. Denying review in this case leaves in place a decision that is in considerable tension with existing law and accepts with little explanation the notion of material interference with the fundamental right to an education – interference that the trial court here found was caused by the challenged statutes


There is a difference between the usual blemishes in governance left as institutions implement statutes or engage in routine trade-offs and those staggering failures that threaten to turn the right to education for California schoolchildren into an empty promise. Knowing the difference is as fundamental as education itself. Which is why I would grant review.


Read the full dissenting statements here.

Read Next