I’ve written before about the case of Harper v Poway Unified School District, which involves the question of whether a student has a right to wear a t-shirt that says “homosexuality is shameful.” I believe he clearly does. The case is actually going on two different levels now. Harper’s lawyers asked for a preliminary injunction in their favor and were denied; they appealed that denial and the 9th circuit upheld the lower court’s denial of the preliminary injunction. They have now filed cert with the Supreme Court on that denial and are awaiting word on whether it will be approved (and a conference is scheduled soon on whether the Court will hear it).
Now comes a big wrench in the works: the district court has now granted a motion to dismiss from the school on the grounds that Tyler Harper has now graduated and the case is thus mooted. However, the judge then decided that he would consider the case as it affected Harper’s younger sister, who is still in the same high school, and he still dismissed the case – using the precedent of the appeals court ruling upholding his denial of the injunction in the case! This strikes me as really shoddy on the part of the judge.
First, the appeals court upholding a denial of a motion for preliminary injunction does not mean that the appeals court has ruled on the merits of the case, so using it as a precedent strikes me as absurd. The standard that must be met for issuing a preliminary injunction is far higher than the standard that must be met for winning the case on the merits; many a case has seen a motion for preliminary injunction denied but still come out in favor of the plaintiff who filed the motion.
Second, the whole notion of dismissing the case on grounds of standing because the student has now graduated just points up the serious problem I’ve written about before regarding our legal system’s doctrine of standing. If the government, in this case the school, has violated a student’s rights, the student is almost inevitably going to be out of school by the time the case makes the 3 or 4 year journey to the Supreme Court; this would effectively moot every case. The same argument was made to try to avoid all court rulings on abortion, saying that every case was effectively mooted because, by the time it got to appeal, the woman had already had the baby. The argument was absurd then (and was rejected by the courts) and it is absurd here as well.
So now the plaintiffs will appeal the motion to dismiss and it will go back up. I think the Supreme Court should grant cert in the case, combine the two appeals in to one and either rule on the merits or remand it back to the district court for a full hearing on the merits of the case. If they remand, of course, then it will be appealed no matter who wins, the 9th circuit will most likely rule in favor of the school and it will go back to the Supreme Court again. But at least then there will be an evidential record established that is missing now because the case has not been heard on the merits yet.