In 2003, New York's top court dealt a potentially huge blow to taxpayers, opening the door for billions more of their tax dollars to be shoveled into the public-school money pit.
But worse was the harm it did to the rights of voters to have their will reflected by their duly elected leaders in Albany.
Last month's 3-2 Appellate panel ruling underscored the damage. In its suit, the Campaign for Fiscal Equity claimed that city schools are constitutionally entitled to more money. The top court agreed and, in '03, told Albany to figure out how much more - and to provide it.
Yet no where in New York's Constitution does it require any set level of spending.
What does it say?
"The Legislature shall provide for the maintenance and support of a system of free common schools, wherein all the children of this state may be educated."
That's it. And for anyone to claim that New York, which spends more per student than almost any other state, is not providing "a system of free common schools" is simply Orwellian.
So how did the judges twist their way from that simple directive to something verging on an order for up to $5.6 billion a year in new money?
First, in '82, they stretched the wording to suggest the state had to provide "a sound, basic education" - a phrase that, again, appears no where in the Constitution. In later rulings, they cited specific elements of such an education - class size, the condition of schools, etc.
Finally, they claimed it was possible to come up with a specific figure needed to purchase all the necessary components. They wouldn't say what that figure was, but they just knew New York was falling short. (Gumby couldn't stretch like that.)
All the while, they acknowledged their limits. A doctrine known as the "separation of powers" makes clear that budgeting is the express province of the Legislature and governor - and none of the court's business.
And the judges knew it.
Indeed, the Appellate panel's majority in March cited high-court warnings to "defer to the Legislature in matters of policy-making, particularly in a matter so vital as education financing."
Yet the court has declined to admit that these limits put the whole case beyond its scope - even though the remedy sought is an explicit budget hike. Instead, the majority produced a hedged order: The Legislature and governor must "consider" spending hikes of between $4.7 billion and $5.6 billion annually.
To see just how muddled that is, read Judge David Saxe's spirited dissent: What exactly does the majority mean, he asks, when it orders the "state" to "consider" new spending between those amounts and then to "appropriate the constitutionally required funding"?
Who is the "state" - the governor? Lawmakers? And what makes anyone think they'll agree on a figure, let alone the "constitutionally required" figure, given their historic dysfunction when it comes to budgeting?
Law professor David Schoenbrod also notes that lawmakers - the only ones who can appropriate funds - have "legislative immunity" and thus can't be ordered to do anything. Yet even beyond that, there's a looming constitutional crisis: The rulings have led some New Yorkers to think Albany must cough up billions more. If it doesn't, who's going to force it to do so?
To a layman, surely the court has a right to interpret the constitution and issue orders to keep government in compliance. But no one can seriously believe that New York is failing to provide "a system of free common schools." Not when it is spending some $14,000 a year, on average, for every student.
The court's claim to the contrary has led to this impasse. And New Yorkers will pay dearly - not just in the billions more needlessly spent, but in the loss of political power to an imperial court.