State school funds depend on judge

Case pits the court against a legislature unwilling to raise taxes for schools.
Monday, July 9, 2007 | 2:00 a.m. CDT; updated 7:53 p.m. CDT, Monday, July 14, 2008
Cole County Circuit Judge Richard Callahan listens June 13 to arguments as the St. Louis School Board tries to block the state’s takeover in Jefferson City.

ST. LOUIS — In the coming weeks, Cole County Circuit Judge Richard Callahan will single-handedly decide a key case involving the state’s multi-billion-dollar school funding plan.

He must decide whether the state’s $2.7 billion school funding plan gives public school students a fair chance at an education.

His decision could affect not only the amount of taxes that must be collected for schools, but also the quality of public education the state is obligated to provide.

Such high-stakes rulings have become his forte. In the past four years, no Cole County judge has tested the constitutionality of more laws and regulations than he has.

In the last two years alone, Callahan has ruled on laws dealing with campaign contributions, strip clubs, the state’s child abuse registry and voter identification.

Last month, he allowed the state to take control of the St. Louis Public Schools, over the objection of the district’s elected board.

Now he must decide whether to uphold the state’s school funding plan. Ruling against the state would pit the court against a legislature that is unwilling to raise taxes for schools.

“I fear a situation where the court orders the legislature to spend more money than it has,” said Sen. Matt Bartle, R-Lee’s Summit.

Bartle said the case could give one judge the power to overturn the will of the legislature that crafted the school spending plan two years ago.

Even though the state cases are assigned randomly among the judges, by chance, Callahan has been given most of the recent high-profile disputes. That often places him at odds with the politicians who crafted the laws he is asked to scrutinize. And increasingly, state legislators are lashing out at judges and threatening to limit their authority.

Bartle and other Republicans, including Gov. Matt Blunt, have supported a constitutional amendment that would prevent courts from trumping the legislature’s authority over matters concerning state spending.

The amendment, which has failed to clear the legislature, was drafted partly out of fears over the school funding case before Callahan.

Callahan said judges owe deference to the legislature, acknowledging their role as the people’s elected representatives. But he said preserving core constitutional rights often means tossing out laws.

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