Business that violate disabled citizens’ rights must pay up. Should that include public schools?

Hearing a Bay Area case, the state Supreme Court appeared reluctant Tuesday to allow disabled students to seek damages under a California civil rights law, including triple damages in some cases, if a public school violates their rights.

Disabled students can recover some damages under state education laws for harm caused by discrimination. But the 1959 Unruh Civil Rights Act, at issue in this case, goes further, with penalties of at least $ 4,000 for each denial of equal access, punitive damages for intentional violations and attorneys’ fees.

But the Unruh Act, written by future Assembly Speaker Jesse Unruh, states that it applies to “all business establishments of any kind whatsoever,” and does not refer to government institutions. It applies to private schools, and some courts, including most federal courts in California, have ruled that “all business establishments” can be interpreted broadly to include public schools.

Disputes over the meaning of California law are resolved by the state’s high court, and several justices seemed skeptical Tuesday of defining public schools as businesses under discrimination laws.