Court Report

A Courtroom Drama, A Tale Untold

Last issue’s cover story, “How a haircut, a heron, and a used bookstore saved this article,” explained how HSLDA attorneys help thousands of families each year in big and small ways, and why, if an HSLDA didn’t exist, we’d need to invent one. Many of these stories never get reported, sometimes because they are too sensitive at the time.

For this issue, as we celebrate HSLDA’s 40th anniversary, the editors asked me to clear out the cobwebs of my memory and tell a previously untold tale of one of my early cases as an example of how I personally came to understand HSLDA’s vital role in the homeschooling ecosystem.

(The following is from memory. Facts compressed for flow and clarity. Quotes are substantially correct as best as I can recall, recast for storytelling quality.)

One little court summons

My vocation as a homeschool legal defense lawyer began on August 5, 2001, when I was hired to help Mike Farris with our litigation work. In 2003, a member family notified us that they had been summoned to court on the charge of educational neglect, and the first appearance was later that week.

As is often the case, the documents accompanying the summons were distinctly lacking in detail. The family told me that they thought it all started when they enrolled their oldest child in middle school to play sports. The principal, they believed, had never liked the fact that they homeschooled, and in smalltown America, everyone knows everyone else’s business—into which, noses they sometimes poke.

Jetting off on short notice to faraway courts is not always as glamorous as it may sound. After a night in a musty hotel room on the main highway into town, I met our local counsel at his office, three blocks from the courthouse. He had taken over the law practice from his father after years of working with him, so he knew the local legal ropes. He knew all the prosecutors and lawyers in town, and he knew the judge. We made a dynamic duo.

He had learned some things while I was on my journey. It was indeed the principal who had made the report. And he had tried to raise a stink before. But the superintendent had told him not to do anything because the family had meticulously followed the homeschool law with all their kids, including providing satisfactory year-end assessments.

The family arrived and told us more about their homeschool. They considered their kids to be progressing according to their ability, comfortably in the average range for kids their age—and the documents they provided backed them up. Their oldest, who had been allowed to enroll in the public school, had some learning challenges in reading, which had him a little behind the average kid his age. They figured the principal used this to finally justify dragging them into court.

Before they left the law office, Mom reached into her purse and pulled out a small piece of paper. A glorious piece of paper. A piece of paper I immediately recognized as the Golden Ticket.

One little courtroom drama

After lunch, we all assembled in the courthouse and waited to be called. An angry-looking young man, who turned out to be the prosecutor, told us the judge wanted just attorneys in his chambers. This is a common practice.

“I see you’re not licensed in this state,” the prosecutor said to me as we walked down the narrow hallway. “I’ll have you up on charges before the bar association,” he continued. “We don’t need any bigshot DC lawyers in our county.”

Not my first rodeo: I reached into my briefcase and handed him the order the judge had signed that morning, allowing me to participate in the case. Round One to the good guys.

Already seated in chambers were two guardians ad litem—attorneys appointed to represent the best interests of the children. One was for the boy in public school, and the other for the kids still being homeschooled. Next to them sat the principal. The prosecutor placed me in the chair directly in front of the judge and sat to the immediate right of the judge’s desk, facing me.

The judge had erected a wall of books stacked high between himself and the chair where I sat. He slumped down and chainsmoked the entire time. To make eye contact, I had to sit perfectly erect on the edge of my seat, and even then, his eyeglasses occasionally bobbed down below the billows of smoke behind his fortress.

The prosecutor opened with a red-faced, finger-wagging, spittle-flying tirade. That was not normal. Most in-chambers meetings are cordial, even in challenging cases. More embarrassed for the prosecutor than upset, I said little, mindful that this was not an on-the-record hearing.

The judge asked to hear from the two guardians ad litem, who were noncommittal. He then asked the principal to explain why we were there.

The principal confirmed that he had been concerned about this family’s homeschool but didn’t feel he could do anything until the oldest boy enrolled in his school. The portrait he painted was short on facts, but his opinion was not flattering.

One little Golden Ticket

When he finished, the timing seemed ideal, even if not on the record. I told the judge that I’d like to ask the principal a few questions, and he allowed it.

A golden ticket

“The oldest boy enrolled in your school at the start of the year, didn’t he?” I asked.

“Yes, that’s correct.”

“And,” I continued, “he had five teachers for the different subjects, didn’t he?”

“That is correct.”

“Do you know all of his teachers?” I asked.

“Yes, of course,” he responded, as if I were Captain Obvious.

“Do you consider them all to be well qualified?”

“Yes, they are,” he said.

“And are they all truthful?”

“Of course,” he answered, a bit indignantly.

At that moment, I reached into my briefcase and pulled out the Golden Ticket. With just a whiff of theatricality, I handed it to the principal.

“Mr. Principal,” I said, pulse quickening, doing my best to stay off my high horse, “what is the document I just handed to you?”

The pregnant pause that followed suggested it may have been the first time he’d seen it.

“It’s the boy’s report card,” he murmured, never raising his eyes.

“When was it issued?” I asked so quietly that everyone in the room seemed to lean in.

“Earlier this week,” he replied.

“And sir,” I asked, “are those the five teachers in whom you put so much confidence?”

“Yes, they are,” he said.

Then, with my best “you must eat your vegetables” voice, I asked, “Would you please tell the judge what grades your trusted teachers assigned to the child?”

“Two Bs and three Cs.”

Game, set, match for the good guys. Turns out the principal’s teachers had the same assessment that the boy’s parents had.

The judge sat up straight, thrust his bespectacled face out from behind his cloud cover, and said, “I don’t think we need to go on the record today. I’m going to set this over while you all confer about next steps.”

A few weeks later, a different young prosecutor came out and politely introduced himself to me. “We’re going to be dismissing today,” he said. And, after the proceedings concluded, one of the guardians ad litem apologized for the previous prosecutor’s unprofessional conduct and expressed his appreciation that I hadn’t responded in kind.

One little tale, now told

The case set no important precedent. It didn’t make the news. No one outside a handful of participants even knew it happened for 20 years, till now.

I have always been grateful to the Lord for showing me the importance of the work HSLDA does in cases like this early in my time here. Many families have been helped with little or no fanfare. Over the years, Golden Tickets have abounded. We pray and rely on the Lord to provide them, and to help us carry out our professions with excellence and compassion.

And we are ever mindful that we cannot carry out this important mission without your prayers and support. Thank you.

Jim is an attorney, litigator, and homeschooling dad who has helped HSLDA win a number of landmark cases establishing and protecting homeschool freedom.