The Court issued one opinion with today’s orders list. It did not grant any new cases for oral argument.
Today’s opinion was Justice Guzman’s second since joining the Texas Supreme Court. Both have been decisions for a unanimous Court; she has not yet written or joined a dissent or concurrence. (For the curious, here is a list of split decisions in the Texas Supreme Court this term.)
This case is about the appellate process for a school district’s decision to discipline (here: to fire) a teacher who has been accused of violating school policy (here: a corporal-punishment policy).
Those disciplinary decisions can be appealed from a hearing examiner to the State Commission of Education. The Commissioner is given authority to overturn the school board, if the evidence supports that result.
On these facts, the Commissioner sided with the teacher who had been fired and ordered Presidio I.S.D. to either reinstate the teacher or to pay one year of salary as compensation.
The statute provides a way for either side to seek judicial review of the Commissioner’s decision in state district court. But the statute gives a choice about which district court can hear this case.
Education Code §21.307 offers two choices:
(1) a district court in the county in which the district’s central administrative offices are located; or
(2) if agreed by all parties, a district court in Travis County.
Both the school district and the fired teacher consented to have the suit tried in Travis County.
The Commissioner objected to that venue, arguing that he was one of the “parties” who had to agree to that venue. Instead, he insisted that the suit proceed in Presidio County. (According to Wikipedia, “Presidio is about 240 miles from El Paso, Texas, which is the closest major city to this town.”)
The court of appeals sided with the Commissioner, holding that the Commissioner had discretion to force the litigants to pursue their district court proceeding in the local district court instead of in Travis County.
Today, the Texas Supreme Court reversed. The core of its holding was a statutory construction that the phrase “all parties” in the statute included only the parties to the original grievance, not the Commissioner himself.
The Commissioner is not a “party” to a dispute before him that goes up on appeal
The Commissioner argued for a role in trying to keep the case in a favorable forum, in part so he could prevent “forum shopping” to overturn his decisions.
But the Court rejected the idea that the two parties involved in the grievance could be “forum shopping” when both of them agreed to have the case heard in Travis County. And it expressed confusion about what distinct interest the Commissioner (who was acting as arbiter of a dispute between two other parties) might have in choosing a forum:
As a neutral arbiter of the decision being appealed, the Commissioner should be indifferent to the venue in which the appeal is filed. We are not persuaded that the Legislature intended to combat forum-shopping by giving the Commissioner the power to block review in Travis County.
… In this type of judicial appeal, the Commissioner is no more interested in having his decision upheld than is any lower court when reviewed by a higher court.
Further, the Court opined these sorts of disciplinary appeals would be an improper vehicle for the Commissioner to use for policymaking, because of his narrow role that was to be focused on the facts of the specific case:
The Commissioner’s limited role coupled with the deferential review by the district court belies any attempt to classify the Commissioner’s task as making policy.