March 20, 2009
School of Law
March 20, 2009
Mary Broadhurst ’90 Heads to High Court with Precedent-Setting Case
Eugene attorney and Oregon Law alumna Mary Broadhurst ’90 is headed to the United States Supreme Court in April with a case that could have landmark implications for public school districts around the country.
In Forest Grove School District v. T.A., Broadhurst is representing the family of a former high school student diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (“ADHD”) who was placed in a private setting after the school district denied special education services. The family is seeking reimbursement from the school district for the private schooling expenses under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (“IDEA”), which states that all special education students are entitled to a “free and appropriate public education.”
Forest Grove School District, on the other hand, argues that the student does not qualify for special education services, and that the parents never sought these services before requesting reimbursement from the district.
The Supreme Court heard a similar case in 2007, Board of Education (NYC) v. Tom F., but split in their decision 4-4 with the recusal of Justice Kennedy. Broadhurst says it’s obvious the Court wants a second chance to resolve this issue.
Broadhurst, whose practice is dedicated to special education law, says she originally decided to take on this particular case because it had great facts.
“The student’s parents had requested an evaluation under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, and the school district, though they suspected ADHD, limited the evaluation to the area of ‘learning disability,’ a category in which he did not fit the criterion,” Broadhurst notes. “These parents had done all one could reasonably expect to get the services their son qualified for and had been thwarted at every turn.”
While Broadhurst will not be arguing in front of the Supreme Court, she will serve as team coordinator, assisting with the merits brief and working with the various amici groups that plan to file briefs. She most likely will be involved with handling the press as well, given her passion for the case and her ability to speak in layman’s terms.
“After my clients prevailed at the 9th Circuit, I began getting phone calls from attorneys who had been involved in the Tom F. case,” she says. “Recognizing that oral advocacy is not my strongest suit, I was considering finding another attorney to do the oral argument, as exciting as the prospect was of arguing at the Supreme Court level.”
Broadhurst found David Salmons, a Washington D.C. attorney with the firm of Bingham McCutchen, to be lead counsel. Salmons served as an assistant to the Solicitor General of the United States for six years and argued 13 cases before the Supreme Court, including several special education cases.
“By the time the Supreme Court accepted the Forest Grove case I had three very skilled attorneys offering to be lead counsel, write the merits brief, and argue the case. As my clients did not have much money left to invest in this case, it was very fortunate to have offers of pro bono assistance from such skilled attorneys, each of which had argued in front of the Supreme Court.”
Broadhurst recalls her passion for working with special needs individuals beginning at age 13. The third child in a family of ten, Broadhurst’s mother suggested she start a summer volunteer job as she was becoming too old for the neighborhood playground, yet still too young for a real job. Much to Broadhurst’s chagrin, she began working at a summer day camp for children with disabilities.
“I selected the job for a less than honorable reason — I thought they would only hire people age 14 and older and expected to be rejected,” Broadhurst admits. “It was during my first summer there, however, that I decided I wanted to be a special education teacher.”
While studying to be a teacher at Fitchburg State College in Massachusetts, Broadhurst heard a startling statistic during her last semester: “I heard that special education teachers had a burnout rate of five years.
“As I explored the reasons for the burnout rate, I quickly surmised that I would likely be very unsatisfied — torn between a bureaucracy which required allegiance to one’s employer and the needs of special education students.”
Not knowing what else to do, Broadhurst decided to pursue a career path that would give her lots of options — law school fit that bill.
“I had no idea what area of law I wanted to work in, but surely appreciated the fact that lawyers played an important role in making systematic change, ” Broadhurst recalls. “It was not until my third year of law school that I even knew there was such a thing as special education law and I immediately embraced it.”
Broadhurst says her time at Oregon Law provided her with a strong foundation for practicing special education law.
During her final year of law school, Broadhurst volunteered at the Oregon Advocacy Center (now Disability Rights Oregon) in Portland and says the experience was just the opportunity she needed to begin work in special education advocacy. She even did an administrative hearing during her time there.
Also during law school, Broadhurst researched and wrote major portions of The Educator’s Encyclopedia of School Law, for authors Richard D. Gatti and Daniel J. Gatti. She also published an Oregon Law Review article titled, “The Legal Limits of School Discipline for Children with Handicaps.”
Broadhurst’s advice for students pursuing an education in Family and Child Advocacy Law, or anyone working towards a goal, is simple: “Follow your passions. Acknowledge both your strengths and weaknesses and acquire the necessary skills, or find someone with the necessary skills, to support you in the pursuit of your passions.”
And as for her thoughts on the potential outcome of the case? Broadhurst says regardless of the Supreme Court’s decision, she hopes the public sees the importance of pursuing what you believe is right.