Legislature Strikes Out in Effort to Control High School Sports

The Louisiana Supreme Court recently struck down legislation which sought to regulate the charter of the Louisiana High School Athletics Association, Inc. (LHSAA). See Louisiana High School Athletics Association, Inc. v. State, 2012-1471 (La. 1/29/13), – So.3d -. This is a significant development because it allows the LHSAA to govern much of high school athletics without state interference.

The LHSAA was formed in 1920 to promote and regulate interscholastic athletic competition in Louisiana. In 1988, the LHSAA reorganized itself as a private, non-profit corporation. Membership in the corporation is voluntary and its members include both private and public schools. The LHSAA’s charter states that its bylaws can only be amended by a majority vote of its members present and voting at a regular meeting.

Prior to the Louisiana Supreme Court ruling, the LHSAA enacted regulations: prohibiting a student’s participation in athletics for one year if the student transfers to a new school; defining what is a “family” for purposes of complying with residency requirements; and, prohibiting home school students from sports unless they enroll in a member school.

In response to controversy over these regulations, the Legislature passed various laws to limit the impact of the LHSAA regulations. For instance, La. R.S. 17:176(G) expanded the definition of “family” to allow students to more easily comply with LHSAA’s good faith change of residence rule. Additionally, LSA-R.S. 17:236.3(A) required the LHSAA to allow home school students to participate in athletics without enrolling in a LHSAA member school.

The State took the position that it possessed the authority to enact the statutes because public education is under Legislative control and the LHSAA performs significant administrative functions affecting public education. It argued that the laws were a legitimate expression of governmental power and designed to allow parents and students to optimize the best learning environment, without sacrificing participation in athletics.

The LHSAA opposed these statutes, arguing that the statutes violated the Louisiana Constitution. The trial court agreed with the LHSAA and declared the statutes unconstitutional. Thereafter, the Louisiana Supreme Court exercised its appellate jurisdiction and accepted writs.

The Supreme Court noted that the Louisiana Constitution prohibits the Legislature from passing a local or “special law” regarding certain enumerated subjects, including amending, renewing, extending or explaining the charter of a private corporation. LA. CONST. art. III, § 12(A)(7). The Court held that these statutes were improper “special” laws which arbitrarily singled out the LHSAA and, in effect, re-wrote the LHSAA’s bylaws.

The Court found that the Legislature essentially modified the LHSAA charter to allow the Legislature, as a non-member, to amend the LHSAA bylaws without any approval of the LHSAA or its members. As such, the statutes were unconstitutional.

The impact of the Court’s ruling may reach beyond the arena of athletics. While the particular facts of this case involve participation in high school athletics, the decision reinforces the policy of this state to allow private institutions to self-govern their affairs. As such, this decision shows the Supreme Court’s willingness, at least for the time being, to halt to the gradual expansion of State power.