Supreme Court upholds passage of the Alabama Accountability Act

The Alabama Supreme Court today unanimously threw out a lawsuit filed earlier this year over the way the Legislature passed the Alabama Accountability Act of 2013 that allows flexible school rules and income tax credits for families of students transferring from certain failing schools in order to attend other public or private schools.

Relying on the constitution’s separation of powers doctrine, the court said it did not have the authority to second-guess the way the Legislature passed H.B. 84 by Rep. Chad Fincher, R-Semmes.

The bill introduced as the Local Control School Flexibility Act of 2013 passed both the House and Senate in different versions along party lines but emerged from a controversial conference committee 21 pages longer, with tax credit provisions added, and renamed the Alabama Accountability Act of 2013. Governor Robert Bentley signed it into law.

The ruling is a victory for constitutional law and the majority rule of the Legislature absent any clear constitutional violations.

As part of its 2013 legislative agenda, the Business Council of Alabama actively backed legislation allowing for increased flexibility from state mandates for traditional public schools. The act as introduced would have allowed qualifying schools to reduce reliance on certain state regulations.

After passage, BCA Board Chairman Carl Jamison, released a statement.

“BCA fully supports flexibility and although the conference committee added additional measures, any options for students in failing schools that create opportunities for them to succeed is better than the status quo,” said Jamison, a shareholder at JamisonMoneyFarmer P.C., in Tuscaloosa. “We hope all come together to move forward in a positive manner for children in Alabama.  We applaud the Governor and Legislature for this courageous move tonight.”

After passage, the Alabama Education Association filed suit in state court alleging the conference committee violated the Open Meetings Act and its own Joint Rule 21 that governs conference committee actions, including prohibiting the introduction of new language in a bill. A circuit judge stayed the act’s provisions, legislators who were named as defendants appealed, and the state’s highest court ruled in their favor.

“Under the separation-of-powers provision, the Alabama Constitution gives the legislature the unlimited power to determine the rules governing its own proceedings unless another provision of the Alabama Constitution provides otherwise,” Supreme Court Associate Justice Michael F. Bolin wrote for the 9-0 majority. “It is not the function of the judiciary to require the legislature to follow its own rules.”

The court ordered the Montgomery County circuit court to grant the Legislature’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit “on related grounds that legislators are immune from suit regarding acts undertaken within the sphere of legitimate legislative activity” and because a ruling in favor of the plaintiff would “lead to judicial second-guessing of the legislature’s internal actions, motivations, and procedural decisions regarding its actions.”

Two other lawsuits remain pending over the bill.

-Dana Beyerle