High Court Hears Arguments That Special Needs Parents Don't Need Lawyers in IDEA Suits

The U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments on February 27, 2007, in a case that will determine whether parents of special needs children must hire a lawyer to sue a school district over their children's special education needs. Individuals usually have the right to represent themselves in court if they cannot afford a lawyer. But most courts do not let a parent of a child with special needs represent the child in a case filed under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which guarantees all children a "free appropriate education."

Jeff and Sandee Winkelman, parents of a child with autism, sued their son's school district, asking the district to pay his private school tuition under the IDEA. Because the Winkelmans could not afford to hire a lawyer, the trial and appeals courts ordered the case dismissed.

Lawyers for the Winkelmans argued before the Supreme Court that the IDEA covers both parents and children, so the parents are actually advocating for their own rights and should be allowed to proceed without a lawyer. Justice Stephen G. Breyer seemed receptive to this argument, pointing out the statute's numerous references to parents.

The lawyer for the school district countered that the parents' rights were merely "derivative." He claimed the statute gave parents some procedural rights, but no substantive rights. Justice Antonin Scalia seemed to agree, claiming that lawyers protect the courts from frivolous lawsuits.

For an article from the Arizona Republic on the case, click here. Article Last Modified: 03/07/2007