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UFT, NYSUT lawyers make case for due-process rights

New York Teacher
Bruce Cotler
NYSUT President Karen Magee, flanked by NYSUT general counsel Richard E. Casagrande (left) and Charles Moerdler, the lawyer for the UFT, talks with the press after the hearing.

Lawyers for the UFT and NYSUT vigorously defended the due-process rights of teachers and made a forceful case in state Supreme Court on Jan. 16 for the dismissal of two lawsuits that attack those rights.

“These laws are not a gift to teachers,” said Richard E. Casagrande, the NYSUT general counsel, in the packed courtroom on Staten Island. “They empower teachers to teach.”

“Tenure gives us the right to advocate for students,” said NYSUT President Karen Magee after the hearing. “The whole premise behind the case is unfounded.”

The two-hour hearing centered on whether the issues raised in the two lawsuits belong before the court at all.

The lawsuits, Davids v. New York and Wright v. New York, argue that statutes governing teacher due-process rights, discipline and layoffs are unconstitutional because they deprive students of a sound, basic education as required by the state constitution, and therefore the court is the place to seek remedy. The Wright case was initially filed in Albany by a group headed by former TV personality Campbell Brown. The cases were consolidated in September and are being heard by Justice Philip G. Minardo in Richmond County Supreme Court on Staten Island.

Lawyers for the state, New York City, the Council of School Supervisors and Administrators, the UFT and its state affiliate NYSUT argued that the lawsuits fail to show how due-process laws harmed individual students. In addition, they argued that the plaintiffs failed to show how the courts are the appropriate venue for challenging the law.

“This must rise to a constitutional issue,” Justice Minardo said during the plaintiffs’ arguments. “A statute may not be effective…but is it unconstitutional?” Jay Lefkowitz, the attorney for the Wright plaintiffs, said too many teachers are granted tenure. Minardo asked what percentage of teachers he believed were undeserving of due process rights.

“I can’t tell you until I get discovery when the case goes to trial,” Lefkowitz replied. But he added that three years, the current probationary period, is too short. “Five years is an ideal probationary period,” he said. “Tenure is now granted before a teacher’s effectiveness can be determined.”

Charles Moerdler, the lawyer for the UFT, cited oversized classrooms, unaddressed poverty and underfunding of the schools, not teacher due-process rights, as the cause for many of the problems plaguing schools.

“To use teachers as a scapegoat is wrong,” Moerdler said after the court session ended. “The days of Joe McCarthy are over.”

Casagrande argued that basic due-process rights allowed teachers to teach. “If they report a classroom is unsafe, they won’t be disciplined,” he said. “They can report bullying without fear of being fired.”

Minardo gave no indication when he will issue a decision on the unions’ motion to dismiss the lawsuits.

Related Topics: News Stories, Tenure, Tenure