The Editors' Blog

May 16, 2014

Letters of Marque, teacher tenure and other constitutional stuff

How a couple of constitutions come to bear on teacher tenure in NC

Judge Robert Hobgood cited two constitutions - the state and U.S. - in his ruling that the General Assembly’s action ending career status, i.e., teacher tenure, was unconstitutional.

He ruled it violated the contract clause of the U.S. Constitution, Article 1, Section 10, which says:

“No State shall enter into any Treaty, Alliance, or Confederation; grant Letters of Marque and Reprisal; coin Money; emit Bills of Credit; make any Thing but gold and silver Coin a Tender in Payment of Debts; pass any Bill of Attainder, ex post facto Law, or Law impairing the Obligation of Contracts, or grant any Title of Nobility.”

Skip over for a moment the part about Letters of Marque and Reprisal. The relevant words here are “Law impairing the Obligation of Contracts.” The judge is saying that tenure was part of a contract between the teacher and the school board.

He also cited Article 1, Section 19 of the North Carolina Constitution, which says, in part:

“No person shall be taken, imprisoned, or disseized of his freehold, liberties, or privileges, or outlawed, or exiled, or in any manner deprived of his life, liberty, or property, but by the law of the land . . . .” The relevant words are “deprived of his ... property...”

The judge is saying that tenured teachers have a property right, and the legislature faces a high bar in taking it away just because it would make it easier to get rid of bad teachers.

The legislature will appeal based on its differences with Judge Hobgood on matters of constitutional law.

Since you were wondering, Letters of Marque and Reprisal allowed private individuals, like sea captains, to seize property of another nation, like ships, and put the plunder up for sale.

This was popular way back in the day. The framers of the U.S. Constitution decided to reserve this power for Congress and said states couldn’t do it. Otherwise, you’d have some governors maybe tempted to license privateers to close budget shortfalls, matey.

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