WASHINGTON — Wonder the goldendoodle reached the peak of the U.S. judicial system on Monday with a U.S. Supreme Court case potentially crucial to disability rights.

Few lawyers, let alone canines, ever snag a bone this big.

Now semi-retired as a service dog, Wonder’s work for a young Michigan girl with cerebral palsy set in motion the legal proceedings that culminated in an hour’s worth of mostly technical oral argument Monday morning. Facing some poignant facts, justices stuck closely to the dry but significant basics.

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Even so, while Wonder waited on the plaza outside the court, several justices seemed sympathetic to the family that once relied on him, and skeptical about the school board on the other side.

“I’m so confused by your position,” Justice Sonia Sotomayor told the school board’s attorney, Neal Katyal. “I’m so horribly confused.”

Wonder is not the first dog to reach the Supreme Court.

In 2013, a Florida-based drug-sniffing dog named Aldo anchored a decision in which the court upheld a sniff search of a suspect’s car. That same year, the court struck down a front-door sniffing search conducted by a Miami-Dade Police Department chocolate Labrador named Franky.

In a 2005 case that began in LaSalle County, Ill., the court upheld a sniffing search during a traffic stop by a drug-detection dog named Pet.

Wonder provided a different kind of service for Ehlena Fry, who is now 12 and who is identified in court proceedings as “E.F.” Ehlena and her parents were in the courtroom Monday for the hourlong oral argument.

In 2009, when she was 5 years old, Ehlena obtained Wonder with the help of community fundraising. The dog helped her in a number of ways, from retrieving dropped items and helping her balance when she used her walker to opening and closing doors.

School district officials in Jackson County, Mich., eventually blocked Wonder from accompanying Ehlena, citing the potential for distractions to other students, among other reasons. The family subsequently home-schooled Ehlena, and later moved to nearby Washtenaw County, where she and Wonder were both permitted to attend.

The specific question facing the eight justices Monday was whether Ehlena’s family first had to exhaust administrative remedies under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act before they filed federal suit under the separate Americans with Disabilities Act.

“We are seeking emotional distress damages,” attorney Samuel R. Bagenstos told the court.

The state of Illinois, as well as groups including Psychiatric Service Dog Partners Inc. in South Carolina, sided with Ehlena in saying her federal lawsuit could proceed.

The National School Boards Association is backing the Michigan school board, warning against lawsuits that would “harm more than help.” One way or another, many could be affected. Some 6 million students nationwide are covered by programs established under the IDEA.

“Congress said you’ve got to go through this process,” Katyal said.

The court seemed divided about the issue; potentially, along unusual lines.

While Justice Elena Kagan sounded skeptical of the school board’s position, her fellow liberal Justice Stephen Breyer warned of the consequences of letting more lawsuits proceed.

“That would seem to gut the carefully written procedural system,” Breyer said.

Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. suggested concerns from both sides, cautioning that opening the door to more lawsuits might give families “a lot more leverage” against school districts, but he also raised questions that seemed sympathetic to the family.

Justice Clarence Thomas, in keeping with his standard practice, was the only justice not to speak or ask a question during the argument. A ruling is expected by the end of June.

© 2016 McClatchy Washington Bureau
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