Supreme Court takes up Arizona school tuition case

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[JURIST] The US Supreme Court [official website; JURIST news archive] heard oral arguments [day call, PDF; merit briefs] Wednesday in Arizona Christian School Tuition Organization v. Winn [oral arguments transcript, PDF; JURIST report] on the constitutionality of an Arizona tax credit for donations to organizations that provide scholarships at private schools, which allows scholarships funded by religious organizations to be granted only to students attending parochial schools. The US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit held [opinion, PDF] that the taxpayers had standing to challenge the constitutionality of the law and allowed the claim to proceed. The outcome will determine if tax credit program unconstitutionally endorses or advances religion simply because taxpayers choose to direct more contributions to religious organization than nonreligious ones. Counsel for the petitioners argued that, “Arizona’s tuition tax credit does not violate the Establishment Clause, because it’s a neutral law that results in scholarship programs of private choice.” Counsel for the US government argued as amicus curiae in support of petitioners. Counsel for the respondents clarified their argument: “Our claim is not that … State money is going to religious schools. Our claim is that State money is being given to the beneficiaries of a State spending program on the basis of religion. It’s a claim about discrimination in the distribution of these stated funds.”

In Williamson v. Mazda Motor of America [oral arguments transcript, PDF], the court heard arguments on whether a federal minimum safety standard [text], which authorizes automobile manufacturers to install a lap-only seat belt at the inboard seating positions of a vehicle, preempts a state tort action alleging that the manufacturer should have installed a lap and shoulder belt in one of those seating positions. A California state appeals court held [opinion, PDF] that a state action was preempted by Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard No. 208 [text], which requires lap and shoulder seat belt assemblies only for outboard seating. Petitioners claim that Mazda [corporate website] had a duty to warn of safety risks associated with lap-only seat belts under Wyeth v. Levine [opinion, PDF; JURIST report], in which the Supreme Court ruled that federal approval of labels giving warnings about effects of drugs does not bar lawsuits under state law claiming inadequate warnings of a health risk. Counsel for the petitioners argued, “[t]he claim is not preempted, because it is perfectly consistent with and would not frustrate the objectives of the operative 1989 version of Standard 208 governing Type 2 seatbelts in rear seats.” Counsel for the US government argued as amicus curiae on behalf of petitioners. Counsel for respondents argued that the claim should be preempted because the federal government did not merely provide a minimum standard but left the option to the manufacturer because of safety trade-offs for each type of seatbelt.

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