Court Sides With Telecoms, Autistic Child

Supreme Court ruling on autistic child's parents, telecoms
CBS/AP/Journal Record, Mark Hancock
The Supreme Court on Monday sided with the nation's largest local phone companies in a lawsuit by consumers alleging anti-competitive business practices.

The court ruled 7-2 that the suit lacked any specifics in accusing the companies of secretly agreeing not to compete in each other's territories for local telephone and high-speed Internet service.

The case stems from changes to the telecommunications law in 1996. The local phone companies were to open their monopoly markets to competition. In return, they were given the opportunity to enter long-distance business. At the time, four companies controlled more than 90 percent of the market for local phone service.

The defendants were Bell Atlantic Corp., BellSouth Corp., Qwest Communications International Inc., and SBC Communications Inc. Bell Atlantic is now Verizon Communications Inc. and SBC bought AT&T Inc. and the renamed company, AT&T, merged with BellSouth.

Consumers represented by a prominent firm of plaintiffs' attorneys sued when the companies kept to their own territories rather than competing. The consumers also alleged the local phone companies conspired to keep smaller companies from competing successfully in the larger companies' markets.

"The significance is that the phone companies now have some breathing room; some protection from a lawsuit that had the potential to be devastating to their businesses," said CBS News legal analyst Andrew Cohen. "Now the question is whether those consumers who sued and lost because their case was not specific enough can re-jigger things and try again."

Autistic Child's Right To Sue For Special Education

Parents need not hire a lawyer to sue public school districts over their children's special education needs, the Supreme Court ruled Monday.

The decision came in the case of an autistic boy from Ohio, whose parents argued they were effectively denied access to the courts because they could not afford a lawyer.

Federal law gives every child the right to a free appropriate public education, which in the case of special needs children sometimes means enrollment in a private facility. But most federal courts had concluded that parents who are not lawyers and who want to challenge decisions have to hire an attorney to represent them.

The court sided with Jeff and Sandee Winkelman and their son, Jacob, in their fight against the Parma, Ohio school district. The Winkelmans can't afford a lawyer or the cost of private schooling for Jacob. Neither parent is a lawyer.

The parents objected to the Parma schools' plan to educate Jacob at a public school. They wanted the district to pay for his $56,000 yearly enrollment in a private school that specializes in educating autistic children.

The Winkelmans have spent about $30,000 in legal fees since first contesting Jacob's treatment in 2003. Jeff Winkelman has taken a second job while his wife has researched previous court rulings and written her own filings.

It is unclear how many parents forgo lawsuits because they can't afford them, although advocates for disabled children said in court papers that most parents of disabled children lack the means to hire a lawyer.

Parents unhappy with a district's plan can appeal the decision through an administrative process. If they remain dissatisfied, they can file a civil lawsuit on their child's behalf, federal courts have said. At that point, however, most courts have said the parents must hire a lawyer.

"This is a gateway ruling, allowing these specialized and often complex disabilities cases to proceed even when they are brought by non-lawyers," said Cohen. "The good news here for parents is that they can try to better the conditions for their children who may have special needs without paying a fortune in legal fees; the bad news is that it's tough to win these cases when you don't have a legal expert on your side."

Whether Jacob should have private schooling at public expense was not before the Supreme Court, only his parents' right to go into federal court without a lawyer.

The 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals had ruled in the school district's favor. Monday's ruling overturned that decision.

The case number is Winkelman v. Parma City School District, 05-983.

Death Penalty Case Dismissed

Also Monday, the Supreme Court dismissed a death penalty case concerning whether a prosecutors' closing argument unfairly inflamed jurors and violated the defendant's constitutional rights. The effect of the court's action in the case of William Weaver, a Missouri man convicted of murder in 1987, is to set aside Weaver's death sentence.