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Paige v. State

Supreme Court of Vermont

December 21, 2018

H. Brooke Paige
v.
State of Vermont, et al.

          On Appeal from Superior Court, Orange Unit, Civil Division Michael J. Harris, J.

          H. Brooke Paige, Pro Se, Washington, Plaintiff-Appellant.

          Bernard D. Lambek of Zalinger Cameron & Lambek, PC, Montpelier, for Defendant-Appellee Washington Town School Board.

          Thomas J. Donovan, Jr., Attorney General, and Philip Back, Assistant Attorney General, Montpelier, for Defendants-Appellees State of Vermont, et al.

          PRESENT: Reiber, C.J., Skoglund, Robinson, Eaton and Carroll, JJ.

          EATON, J.

         ¶ 1. Plaintiff H. Brooke Paige, a taxpayer and resident of Washington, Vermont, appeals the civil division's dismissal of his complaint for declaratory and injunctive relief against the State of Vermont and the Washington Town School Board. In his complaint, he asserted that Act 46, a 2015 state law related to education funding, spending, and governance, impermissibly coerced town residents into voting to merge school districts. He further alleged that Act 46 deprived town residents of local control of education and would result in unequal educational opportunities in violation of the Education and Common Benefits Clauses of the Vermont Constitution. We conclude that plaintiff lacks standing to bring this action and therefore affirm the decision below.

         ¶ 2. In 2015, the Vermont Legislature enacted Act 46 to address a statewide trend of declining student enrollment and increased education costs. 2015, No. 46, § 1. The law was intended "to move the State toward sustainable models of educational governance" by encouraging local action to "maximize operational efficiencies through increased flexibility to manage, share, and transfer resources, with a goal of increasing the district-level ratio of students to full-time equivalent staff." Id. § 2. To achieve this goal, Act 46 established a multi-year process for merging existing school districts into newly created districts with preferred governance structures. The law contained financial incentives for districts to voluntarily merge. Id. § 6 (providing for decreased homestead property tax rate, merger support grant, and transition facilitation grant to districts that merged before July 2017); id. § 7 (providing for decreased homestead property tax rate and merger support grant to districts that merged between July 2017 and July 2019). The law directed the State Board of Education to order districts that had not acted by November 2018 to merge or realign where necessary. Id. § 10.

         ¶ 3. Plaintiff is a registered voter, taxpayer, and justice of the peace in the town of Washington. In May 2017, Washington residents voted to merge the Washington school district with that of the neighboring town of Orange pursuant to Act 46. That August, plaintiff filed an administrative complaint with the Secretary of State alleging that the merger vote violated Vermont and federal election laws because he and fellow Washington residents were coerced by Act 46 into voting for the merger. The Secretary dismissed the complaint, stating that administrative relief was unavailable because the merger vote was not a primary or general election in which a federal office appeared on the ballot.

         ¶ 4. In September 2017, plaintiff filed a complaint for declaratory and injunctive relief in the civil division against the State of Vermont, the Vermont Board of Education, Secretary of Education Rebecca Holcombe, Secretary of State James Condos, and the Washington Town School Board. In his amended complaint, he alleged that Act 46 deprived Washington residents of local control of education in violation of the Education Clause of the Vermont Constitution, ch. II, § 68; deprived town residents of the right to equal educational opportunities expressed in Brigham v. State (Brigham I), 166 Vt. 246, 692 A.2d 384 (1997); and impermissibly coerced voters in violation of the Vermont Constitution and state and federal election laws. He asked the court to void the merger vote and order the Washington Town School Board restored to its previous governance structure. He also asked the court to reverse the Secretary of State's decision dismissing his administrative complaint. He sought an award of $10, 000 in compensatory and punitive damages to the Washington Town School Board, and $1.00 in damages to him for bringing this action, plus costs.

         ¶ 5. The State moved to dismiss plaintiff's complaint for lack of standing and failure to state a claim for which relief could be granted. The trial court held that plaintiff had standing as a Washington taxpayer because he alleged that as a result of the merger, Washington residents would bear an increased financial burden due to the additional costs associated with the Orange school. However, it determined that plaintiff failed to state a claim that Act 46 violated the Education Clause or the Common Benefits Clause as interpreted in Brigham I, or that the law impermissibly coerced voters in contravention of Articles 8 or 18 of the Vermont Constitution or state or federal election statutes. The court therefore dismissed plaintiff's complaint and upheld the dismissal of his administrative action. Plaintiff appealed to this Court.

         ¶ 6. On appeal, plaintiff argues that the trial court erred in dismissing his claim that Act 46 violates chapter II, § 68 of the Vermont Constitution.[1] We conclude that plaintiff lacks standing to assert his claim, and therefore affirm the trial court's dismissal of plaintiff's action. See Sorge v. State, 171 Vt. 171, 174 n.*, 762 A.2d 816, 818 n.* (2000) (explaining that Supreme Court may affirm correct result for reasons other than those stated by trial court).

         ¶ 7. Standing is a necessary prerequisite to a petition for declaratory judgment. Doria v. Univ. of Vt., 156 Vt. 114, 117, 589 A.2d 317, 318 (1991). The standing requirement derives from Article III of the United States Constitution, which provides that federal courts only have the power to decide "actual cases or controversies." Parker v. Town of Milton, 169 Vt. 74, 76-77, 726 A.2d 477, 480 (1998); U.S. Const. art. III. Vermont has adopted this case-or-controversy requirement. See In re Constitutionality of House Bill 88, 115 Vt. 524, 529, 64 A.2d 169, 172 (1949) ("The judicial power, as conferred by the Constitution of this State upon this Court, is the same as that given to the Federal Supreme Court by the United States Constitution; that is, the right to determine actual controversies arising between adverse litigants, duly instituted in courts of proper jurisdiction." (quotation omitted)).

         ¶ 8. "An element of the case or controversy requirement is that plaintiffs must have standing, that is, they must have suffered a particular injury that is attributable to the defendant and that can be redressed by a court of law." Parker, 169 Vt. at 77, 726 A.2d at 480. The standing doctrine protects the separation of powers between the branches of government by ensuring that courts confine themselves to deciding ...


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