As Judge Neil Gorsuch continued to testify at his Supreme Court confirmation hearing Wednesday, his potential soon-to-be colleagues were busy reversing an interpretation of a federal anti-discrimination statute that he played a role in crafting.
Although Gorsuch had not participated in the lower-court decision that the Supreme Court reversed Wednesday, that decision had relied on an interpretation of the federal statute that he had embraced in a 2008 opinion.
Writing for a unanimous court, Chief Justice John Roberts explained that the federal appeals court in Denver had applied too strict a standard to claims by the parent of an autistic child that they were entitled to reimbursement for the cost of private education under the federal Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act (IDEA).
That statute conditions federal funds to school districts on their compliance with specific minimum standards for accommodating disabled students — or, if they are unable to do so, on their reimbursement of the expense of sending a disabled student to an appropriate private school.
Gorsuch’s interpretation was pursuant to which a school district satisfies federal law, and does not need to reimburse the cost of private education, so long as it provides educational benefits to disabled students that are “more than de minimis.”
In Wednesday’s opinion, the Supreme Court stressed that more was required by the federal statute.
As Chief Justice Roberts wrote for the Court, “When all is said and done, a student offered an educational program providing ‘merely more than de minimis’ progress from year to year can hardly be said to have been offered an education at all.”
Instead, the educational program must be “reasonably calculated to enable the child to make progress appropriate in light of the child’s circumstances.”
The Court then returned the case to the Court of Appeals to reassess the parents’ claims under the correct standard.