The Catholic University of America

 

 

Professor Desto Lauds Supreme Court Ruling on
Arizona Tax Breaks for Private School Scholarships

 

Catholic University law school’s Professor Robert A. Destro is hailing the April 4 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court to toss out a lawsuit challenging Arizona's tax breaks for voluntary donations to private school scholarship programs that benefit children enrolled in religiously-affiliated schools.
 
“The Supreme Court’s 5-4 ruling in Arizona Christian Schools Tuition Organization v. Winn [ACSTO v. Winn] allows Arizona’s 13-year-old tuition tax credit program to continue, and reminds Arizona taxpayers that they can take a dollar-for-dollar income tax credit up to $1,000 for money given to ‘school tuition organizations’ or STOs.” said Destro. “This ruling will increase both the number and diversity of private schools in Arizona, and enable existing schools to expand the range of educational choices available to poor and working-class kids and their families. This is a great victory for Arizona families, children, and taxpayers, and it comes just in time for tax day!”
 
With the assistance of two Catholic University law students, Destro co-wrote an amicus (“friend of the Court”) brief supporting Arizona’s case in the Supreme Court. The brief represented the Jewish Tuition Organization of Phoenix, the New Way Learning Academy, the Catholic Tuition Organizations of the Dioceses of Phoenix and Tucson, and the Lutheran Education Foundation. Attorney Ben Cooper of Steptoe & Johnson in Phoenix was lead counsel.
 
Emily Newman, a 2L from McLean, Va., and one of the students who worked on the brief, was equally thrilled with the outcome. “The real parties in interest in this case are the poor and moderate income kids and families in Arizona. How often does a rising 2L get to help on a Supreme Court case and to serve the poor at the same time?” Newman was especially impressed by the lessons learned through regular contact with clients in a “real” case. “This case helped me to identify and bridge gaps in my knowledge. Working on a team with Professor Destro gave me the confidence I needed to think creatively about the sophisticated legal problems that eventually reach the United States Supreme Court.”
 
“This case has national significance,” said Destro, “because the Supreme Court of the United States has finally recognized that taxpayers who believe that tuition tax credit programs are unconstitutional laws “respecting an establishment of religion” have exactly the same rights as taxpayers who believe that the First Amendment should be read to allow states to encourage a wide range of educational programs and approaches.” 
 
In its 5-4 ruling on April 4th in Arizona Christian Schools Tuition Organization v. Winn and Garriott v. Winn, the court split along conservative-liberal lines. Writing for the majority, Justice Anthony Kennedy said taxpayers challenging the program lacked "standing" to continue the suit because the money a taxpayer donates to a school tuition organization belongs to the taxpayer, not to the state. “Simply put,” said Destro, “the Supreme Court leveled the political playing field. If opponents do not like the law, they are free to ask the legislature to change it.”
 
The decision in these two cases goes a long way toward resolving some critical First Amendment issues centered on education reform and tax theory, said Destro, who directs the law school’s Interdisciplinary Program in Law & Religion and who is often quoted in the media on constitutional law cases involving free speech, elections, religious freedom, education reform, and bioethics.

“Listen closely in the coming months. As the battles over federal and state budgets heats up, you will hear quite a lot about ‘tax-expenditures’ – a shorthand term for tax provisions that reduce or eliminate a taxpayer’s net tax liability. Arizona’s STO tax credit eliminates at least part of the economic pressure that compels most low and moderate income families to send their children to public schools.”