ACLU Renews Fight to Overturn Law That Denies Financial Aid to Students With Drug Convictions

Affiliate: ACLU of Missouri
April 16, 2007 12:00 am

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ST. LOUIS, MO — The American Civil Liberties Union today filed an appeal asking that a federal court be compelled to weigh the full body of evidence in determining the constitutional validity of a provision of the Higher Education Act that denies financial aid to students convicted of a drug offense. The U.S. District Court for the District of South Dakota dismissed the case last year after refusing to consider significant legislative history demonstrating the law to be unconstitutional.

“The law’s purpose is to impose a second criminal punishment on students who have already served their sentences, which makes it unconstitutional,” said Adam Wolf, an attorney with the ACLU Drug Law Reform Project. “Judges must assess, not ignore, lawmakers’ intentions. All we ask is that the court consider the evidence.”

The ACLU filed a motion in federal district court in March 2006 seeking to strike down the Higher Education Act’s Aid Elimination Penalty as unconstitutional. Since its enactment by Congress in 2000, the Aid Elimination Penalty has blocked aid to more than 200,000 would-be students.

The ACLU argued, in part, that the denial of student aid by the Department of Education (DOE), as mandated by the Aid Elimination Penalty, constitutes a second criminal punishment for a student who has already served a sentence imposed by the courts. This second penalty violates the Double Jeopardy Clause of the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

District Court Judge Charles Kornmann upheld the Aid Elimination Penalty in October 2006, ruling that insufficient evidence had been presented to prove the law violated the Double Jeopardy Clause. The court, however, declined to consider a wealth of evidence relating to the legislative history of the Aid Elimination Penalty and similar measures.

The ACLU’s appeal asks that the district court be ordered to consider this legislative history and to reassess whether the law runs afoul of the Constitution’s double jeopardy provision.

The Aid Elimination Penalty initially appeared in 1988 as part of a federal law that allowed judges, at their discretion, to rescind drug offenders’ eligibility for student aid as part of their criminal sentence. Judges, however, by and large declined to suspend aid.

For the first two years of the law’s existence, not a single judge suspended aid. From 1990 onward, courts suspended student aid in less than two out of one thousand eligible cases, according to a Government Accountability Office report.

Due to judges’ reluctance to revoke student aid, Congress sought alternative means to strip aid eligibility from drug offenders. Beginning in 1990, the House of Representatives introduced twin bills on a near an annual basis that would have required the mandatory denial of student aid for all people convicted of a drug offense.

A decade later, these congressional efforts culminated in passage of the Aid Elimination Penalty, which mandated that the DOE rescind the aid eligibility of anyone convicted of a drug offense. In shifting responsibility for imposing this punishment from the courts to the DOE, Congress made clear that the Aid Elimination Penalty was primarily intended to serve the criminal-law functions of retribution and deterrence.

Although the Supreme Court has held that such legislative history can be highly relevant to whether this type of punishment violates the Constitution, the district court expressly ignored this evidence.

“The Aid Elimination Penalty represents the culmination of a decade of legislative efforts to impose an additional criminal punishment on students who have already paid their debts to society,” said Wolf. “The Penalty’s legislative history makes clear that this law is an affront to the constitutional rights of students.”

The ACLU’s appeal, filed in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit, stems from a class action lawsuit brought on behalf of the thousands of students nationwide impacted by the penalty, including the national organization Students for Sensible Drug Policy, as well as three individuals denied aid under the provision.

The case, SSDP v. Spellings, names Margaret Spellings, Secretary of the U.S. Department of Education, as the defendant.

The ACLU’s appellate brief may be viewed online at:

Further background on the case, including the initial ACLU complaint, may be found online at:

A recent SSDP report on the state-by-state impact of the penalty can be found at:

For a list of organizations supporting full repeal of the aid elimination penalty, see:

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