Taxpayers ask Wisconsin high court to rehear school-choice case
By The Associated Press
MADISON, Wis. Taxpayers opposed to Milwaukee's school-choice program asked the state Supreme Court yesterday to overturn its landmark 1998 decision that allowed the voucher program to expand to include religious schools.
Court documents argue the due-process rights of four plaintiffs in the original lawsuit were violated because the court was not impartial in deciding the case, Jackson v. Benson, attorney Ed Garvey said.
Justice Jon Wilcox should have removed himself from deciding the case because he should have known his re-election campaign received thousands of dollars in contributions from school-choice supporters, Garvey said.
One of the plaintiffs, Warner Jackson, said scandals have "inundated" state government.
"We need one branch, the judiciary, to be free of scandal," he said. "The people of Wisconsin deserve a rehearing of this vital decision."
In a 4-2 decision, the Supreme Court ruled in June 1998 that the school-choice program could expand to include religious private schools.
The justices said the expanded program did not violate the U.S. Constitution because it did not promote religion or link church and state.
Until the ruling, the program had restricted participation to nonreligious private schools.
School choice, enacted in 1990, allows poor Milwaukee students to attend private and parochial schools at taxpayer expense.
Supporters say school choice gives children an escape from poor-performing and dangerous public schools, public schools incentive to improve and parents some control over bureaucracies.
Gov. Scott McCallum said yesterday that the same people who tried to kill school choice earlier are "at it again."
"School choice in Milwaukee is working," the governor said in a statement. "It is successful. It has helped so many children and their families. Why these people want to hurt economic-disadvantaged children is beyond me."
In 2000, Wilcox said he might have withdrawn from the school-choice case if he had known about financial help for his 1997 election campaign.
Wilcox will not participate in the state Supreme Court's decision on whether to rehear the case, court spokeswoman Amanda Todd said yesterday.
At the time of Wilcox's campaign, the court was split 3-3 over the school choice issue. Wilcox supported the change. His opponent, Walter Kelly, did not.
Todd said a petition asking the Supreme Court to overturn a ruling is rare.
The court has given the defendants in the case, including the state Department of Public Instruction, until Jan. 23 to respond to Garvey's petition, Todd said.
The justices will then meet to determine what to do. The court seldom rehears cases, she said.
John Kraus, special assistant to state Superintendent of Public Instruction Elizabeth Burmaster, said the agency would have no comment on the petition until it had reviewed the document.
The state Elections Board sued Wilcox's campaign committee and a group called the Wisconsin Coalition for Voter Participation in 2000, claiming the two groups illegally coordinated a get-out-the-vote mailing.
To settle the lawsuit, Wilcox's campaign agreed to pay the Elections Board $10,000 and his campaign manager paid $15,000.
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