Parents May Self-Represent in IDEA Cases U.S. Supreme Court Rules For Parents’ Rights in Special Education Disputes School Matters
School Matters  |   June 01, 2007
Parents May Self-Represent in IDEA Cases
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  • Susan Boswell, an assistant managing editor for The ASHA Leader, can be e-mailed at
    Susan Boswell, an assistant managing editor for The ASHA Leader, can be e-mailed at×
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School-Based Settings / Regulatory, Legislative & Advocacy / School Matters
School Matters   |   June 01, 2007
Parents May Self-Represent in IDEA Cases
The ASHA Leader, June 2007, Vol. 12, 1-6. doi:10.1044/leader.SCM1.12082007.1
The ASHA Leader, June 2007, Vol. 12, 1-6. doi:10.1044/leader.SCM1.12082007.1
The U.S. Supreme Court recently ruled that parents may represent their children’s interests in special education disputes without an attorney.
The justices were unanimous in the May 21 decision in Winkelman v. Parma City School District (Case No. 05-983) that gives parents some rights to represent themselves without a lawyer under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), but split 7-2 on the idea that parents have substantive and procedural rights that encompass their child’s right to a free, appropriate public education under the law.
“Parents enjoy rights under IDEA; and they are, as a result, entitled to prosecute IDEA claims on their own behalf,” wrote Justice Anthony M. Kennedy in the majority opinion. “The decision by Congress to grant parents these rights was consistent with the purpose of IDEA and fully in accord with our social and legal traditions. It is beyond dispute that the relationship between a parent and child is sufficient to support a legally cognizable interest in the education of one’s child.”
Justice Antonin Scalia, joined by Justice Clarence Thomas, wrote an opinion favoring more limited rights for parents to sue. The opinion would hold that parents have the right to proceed in pursuing IDEA claims in court without a lawyer (or pro se) when seeking reimbursement for private-school expenses for their children or when pursuing their own procedural rights under the law, but not when seeking a determination that their child’s free, appropriate public education (FAPE) is substantively inadequate.
“The Court concedes, as it must, that while IDEA gives parents the right to reimbursement and procedural protection in explicit terms, it does not do so for the supposed right to the education itself,” Scalia noted in the dissenting opinion.
Scalia also warned that cases pressed by parents without a lawyer would burden the court system. “[These] cases impose unique burdens on lower courts, and on defendants, in this case the schools and school districts that must hire their own lawyers. Since [these] complaints are prosecuted essentially for free, without screening by knowledgeable attorneys, they are much more likely to be unmeritorious,” he wrote.
Constitutional Rights Upheld
Roberta Kreb, a speech-language pathologist and hearing officer in Michigan, believes that the Supreme Court decision upholds constitutional rights of Americans. “Any citizen has the right to proceed legally without representation,” she said. “Denying parents this right on behalf of their child by limiting the scope of redress would have denied both parties what the Constitution serves to protect.
“Due process procedures were enacted in order to create a mechanism to resolve issues pertaining to the provision of a free and appropriate public education outside of the public courtroom. When the process fails, students and parents must be free to seek redress through litigation—even if this course of action bogs down the court dockets,” Kreb said.
“The provisions within IDEA ensure, through ‘stay-put’ requirements, that the child will continue to receive the special education and related services outlined on the child’s Individualized Education Plan.”
Parents’ Day in Court
The case stems from a lawsuit by Ohio parents Jeff and Sandee Winkelman, who want to represent their son in a lawsuit against the Parma School District that challenges the appropriateness of an Individualized Education Program for their son, Jacob, who has autism spectrum disorder.
Although the parents lost on both issues in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit in Cincinnati, other federal appeals courts have recognized the right of non-lawyer parents to represent themselves, at least on procedural issues.
Sandee Winkelman, who enlisted the support of sympathetic law students at Cleveland State University to find materials on special education law, now says the publicity has prompted lawyers to come forward and offer assistance with the case. After winning the right to argue the case on their own, it is unlikely the Winkelmans will end up doing so.
For more information, visit the Wrights Law Web site.
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June 2007
Volume 12, Issue 8