Bulletin #24 Things to know before citing Case Law   02/06/2004


Did you know? When a phrase from a court case is quoted, it makes a big difference where the phrase was taken from the decision of that case?


Homeschoolers may be familiar with certain quotations from some United States Supreme Court cases that tend to bolster the inherent right of parents to the upbringing and education of their children. Cases like Yoder, Pierce, Parham, Meyer and so on, tend to be used in homeschool articles, and we have seen them used like this:

"[t]he child is not the mere creature of the State; those who nurture him and direct his destiny have the right, coupled with the high duty, to recognize and prepare him for additional obligations.”(Pierce v. Society of Sisters 268 U.S. 510 (1925).)


“The history and culture of Western civilization reflect a strong tradition of parental concern for the nurture and upbringing of their children. This primary role of the parents in the upbringing of their children is now established beyond debate as an enduring American tradition (italics show emphasis)” (Wisconsin v. Yoder 406 U.S. 205 (1972)


"There is a presumption that fit parents act in their children’s best interests" (Parham v. J.R., 442 U.S. 584 (1979)).

There are also other cases from federal circuit courts or even state courts that contain phrases that tend to bolster parental rights. However, it is wise to be familiar with the entire court decision before one is to quote certain parts of it. That’s because a quote taken from one part of the case may not be binding on any other parties or on any other courts, while quotes taken from another part of the case may be.


Courts generally issue their opinions in written form using a particular order to explain the reasoning that led to its ultimate conclusion. Generally, a court will begin its decision by reciting the procedural and factual background relevant to the case. That is, how it came to be in that particular court, and what incidents took place leading up to the dispute. The court may then provide insight into how it undertook its analysis. The court may cite statutes, regulations, or other cases that it reviewed in coming to its ultimate conclusion. The court may also comment on important aspects of those statutes, regulations, or cases. The court’s comments about these things are known as "dicta". The ultimate conclusion in the case is known as the "holding". "Dicta" reflects the opinions of the individual justices but is not binding on the parties to the dispute or on future courts. "Dicta" is usually relevant only by way of explaining the reasoning of the court in formulating its ultimate conclusion or "holding".


For example, in deciding the ultimate guilt or innocence in a criminal case, a court may explain its opinion about a relevant statute. The opinion would be dicta, the ultimate decision of guilt or innocence would be the court’s holding. What the court thought about a particular statute, while valuable as insight as to how a court in the future might act, is not binding on the parties or on a future court. The court’s decision about the guilt or innocence is binding.


Similarly, in a civil suit, where a parent asserts that he has the right to educate his child in a particular manner and a governmental authority disagrees, the opinion of the court explaining the reasoning leading to its ultimate conclusion would be dicta and would not be binding on the parties or a future court. However, the ultimate conclusion of a court as to what right the parent has to educate his child would be the holding of the case, would be binding on those parties, and could be cited for its precedential value.


It is also important to remember that even if a court makes a statement in dicta that appears very favorable to upholding parental rights, the court’s ultimate holding in that particular case may not necessarily be favorable to upholding parental rights. For example: While the U.S. Supreme Court said, in dicta, in Pierce v. Society of Sisters, 268 U.S. 510, 534-535 (1925), that the "liberty of parents and guardians" includes the right "to direct the upbringing and education of children under their control”, the court also held that the State retains the power “reasonably to regulate” the education of children. Similarly, the Court also held in Runyon v. McCrary, 427 U.S. 160, 176 (1976) that parents "have no constitutional right to provide their children with . . . education unfettered by reasonable government regulation."


What is important to remember when one reads excerpts of these court cases is that (1) parents do have certain inherent rights in the upbringing of their children, (2) notwithstanding the inherent rights of parents, states also have certain rights to regulate the education of children if they choose to do so; but (3) it is the right of states and not the right of the federal government to regulate education. It is because the states do retain the authority to regulate education that we must be work together in each state to reduce the amount of regulation as much as possible.


Attorney Deborah Stevenson - Executive Director of National Home Education Legal Defense.www.nheld.com or email : info@nheld.com

Judy Aron - Director of Research, NHELD – imjfaron@sbcglobal.net