The Mississippi Supreme Court has canceled an order from a Chancery court judge who had demanded school officials provide him with the names and addresses of all homeschooled students in his judicial district.
In a six-line statement, a copy of which was obtained by WND, Presiding Justice Jess H. Dickinson wrote, “It is therefore ordered that the Petition for Writ of Prohibition is hereby granted. The order of the Chancery Court, entered on March 24, 2011, is hereby vacated.”
No explanations or details were included, and a spokeswoman for the state court system previously told WND that it was a “confidential” case about which no information would be released.
Dickinson’s order was in response to a dispute that erupted when the lower court judge, Joe Dale Walker, apparently tried to obtain the information for his own use. Walker reportedly threatened school officials when they pointed out such information under federal law was confidential and they couldn’t simply hand it over.
The reports of the threat from Walker, of the state’s 13th Chancery district court, come from one of the attendance officers involved in the case in which Walker demanded the student data.
“He threatened us,” said the official, who later was served with an order the judge wrote and signed for himself.
WND reported when Walker was ordered by the state Supreme Court to explain his demands, and while his explanation was not made public, the final order from the high court was.
Walker declined to respond to multiple messages left by WND seeking comment.
The state Supreme Court got involved when lawyers with the Home School Legal Defense Association, which fights for the rights of homeschoolers worldwide, was informed of the case by some of their members in Mississippi and petitioned the high court on an emergency basis.
HSLDA spokesman Jim Mason told WND that the organization “is very pleased that the Supreme Court acted so quickly.”
He said the order is cryptic because the Supreme Court treated the arguments as a confidential case.
He said the organization sought a Writ of Prohibition from the Supreme Court because of the circumstances of the judge’s order, including the fact there was no underlying case which ultimately could be appealed.
He said the explanation is that the judge did something “he wasn’t supposed to do,” and the high court agreed.
Here is the judge’s original order:
Walker had called a meeting with the school attendance officers and told them to provide the homeschooled students’ names and addresses. They hesitated, as under federal law such information is confidential, and the judge said he had researched the issue, and it was safe for them to give him the information, according to an attendance officer who spoke with WND.
However, the state education department told them not to provide the information, and the judge, upset with the results, threatened that he would go write his own court order and then they would have to comply, the attendance officer said.
“The judge wanted information. We tried to explain we didn’t think we could give it to him,” the officer, whose identity is being withheld by WND. “He wanted it. He threatened us, said if he gave us a court order and we did not fulfill, we would be in contempt and would be arrested.”
When WND reported on the case, it was noted that the information is being sought by the judge himself, as there is no underlying case, motion or dispute that could have prompted the request. There was no case number on the order, and there were no other documents in the court file.
A blogger in the region, however, detailed how it appeared that Walker was trying to determine “which families are legitimately homeschooling and which are using the homeschool statute to circumvent compulsory attendance laws.”
A WND source who is familiar with the details of the dispute confirmed that appeared to be accurate.
Blogger Natalie West Winningham said the judge apparently wanted to prosecute the parents of juveniles who show up in his youth court and who “appear not to be receiving legitimate homeschool instruction as well as to flush out other ‘fake homeschoolers.’”
“Perhaps Judge Walker either doesn’t know or doesn’t care that interviewing, profiling, visiting or otherwise needlessly interfering with homeschool families for the sole purpose of comparing them against an arbitrary, legally non-existent and unenforceable standard with the intent of potentially charging the ‘failing’ parents with a crime is not legal,” she wrote.
“Clearly, the judge is not concerned only with the youths who appear in his court. Otherwise, why would the court order seek to secure ALL of the names and addresses of homeschoolers.”
Further, she questioned what use would be made of the information.
“If I were a vigilante judge who got my hands on a datatbase of homeschoolers’ names and addresses, perhaps I would cross-reference it with past criminal records, DHS cases, driving records, credit histories, tax information, etc. And if I thought I could get away with it, maybe I’d send someone to your home to interview you and hope that you don’t know your legal rights.
“I’m not saying that Judge Walker would do those things. But there are many possibilities and none of them is pleasant,” she wrote.
Spokeswoman Beverly Kraft of the state court system told WND earlier that the issue as it was presented to the state Supreme Court was a “confidential” case about which no documents, no information and no explanation was available.
Walker’s original order noted that the “cause” for the order “came on for hearing on the court’s own motion,” but the HSLDA said apparently no hearing ever was held.
The HSLDA suggested the order is highly unusual and could provide a “chilling” effect on not only homeschoolers but any group whose members’ names may at some point be demanded by a judge.
“It’s a very chilling prospect,” Mason said. “The plain fact is if judges start behaving this way – [targeted could be] people who attend churches or synagogues [or other groups].”
“That would have a chilling effect on freedom of association, and the exercise of other freedoms,” he said.
HSLDA said that after attendance officers at the schools got the order, they notified homeschoolers, enclosing a copy of the judge’s order.
“The letters cited the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act and asked the families to notify the attendance officer by April 8, 2011, if they intended to initiate legal action to prevent release of the protected information sought by Judge Walker,” HSLDA said.
The notice from the HSLDA to its members said the judge also wanted the addresses of all homeschoolers in Smith, Lawrence, Covington, Simpson and Jefferson Davis counties.
Walker’s order listed no parties but only said “RE: HOMESCHOOL.”
“We believe that Judge Walker’s order is an inappropriate use of judicial power,” said Michael Farris, chairman of HSLDA.
The state’s court website says chancery courts “have jurisdiction over disputes in matters involving equity; domestic matters including adoptions, custody disputes and divorces; guardianships; sanity hearings; wills; and challenges to constitutionality of state laws. Land records are filed in Chancery Court.”
The chancery courts also are given jurisdiction in juvenile matters in counties that have no county court.