Efforts to Curb Busing and Other Desegregation Remedies.

Especially during the 1970s, courts and Congress grappled with the appropriateness of various remedies for de jure racial separation in the public schools, both North and South. Busing of school children created the greatest amount of controversy. Swann, of course, sanctioned an order requiring fairly extensive busing, as did the more recent Dayton and Columbus cases, but the earlier case cautioned as well that courts must observe limits occasioned by the nature of the educational process and the well-being of children,1723 and subsequent cases declared the principle that the remedy must be no more extensive than the violation found.1724 Congress enacted several provisions of law, either permanent statutes or annual appropriations limits, that purport to restrict the power of federal courts and administrative agencies to order or to require busing, but these, either because of drafting infelicities or because of modifications required to obtain passage, have been largely ineffectual.1725 Stronger proposals, for statutes or for constitutional amendments, were introduced in Congress, but none passed both Houses.1726

Of considerable importance to the possible validity of any substantial congressional restriction on judicial provision of remedies for de jure segregation violations are two decisions contrastingly dealing with referenda-approved restrictions on busing and other remedies in Washington State and California.1727 Voters in Washington, following a decision by the school board in Seattle to undertake a mandatory busing program, approved an initiative that prohibited school boards from assigning students to any but the nearest or next nearest school that offered the students’ course of study; there were so many exceptions, however, that the prohibition in effect applied only to busing for racial purposes. In California the state courts had interpreted the state constitution to require school systems to eliminate both de jure and de facto segregation. The voters approved an initiative that prohibited state courts from ordering busing unless the segregation was in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment, and a federal judge would be empowered to order it under United States Supreme Court precedents.

By a narrow division, the Court held unconstitutional the Washington measure, and, with near unanimity of result if not of reasoning, it sustained the California measure. The constitutional flaw in the Washington measure, the Court held, was that it had chosen a racial classification—busing for desegregation—and imposed more severe burdens upon those seeking to obtain such a policy than it imposed with respect to any other policy. Local school boards could make education policy on anything but busing. By singling out busing and making it more difficult than anything else, the voters had expressly and knowingly enacted a law that had an intentional impact on a minority.1728 The Court discerned no such impediment in the California measure, a simple repeal of a remedy that had been within the government’s discretion to provide. Moreover, the state continued under an obligation to alleviate de facto segregation by every other feasible means. The initiative had merely foreclosed one particular remedy—court-ordered mandatory busing—as inappropriate.1729

The Court subsequently declined to extend the reasoning of these cases to remedies for exclusively de facto racial segregation. In Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action,1730 the Court considered the constitutionality of an amendment to the Michigan Constitution, approved by that state’s voters, to prohibit the use of race-based preferences as part of the admissions process for state universities. A plurality of the Schuette Court restricted its prior holdings as applying only to those situations where state action had the serious risk, if not purpose, of causing specific injuries on account of race.1731 Finding no similar risks of injury with regard to the Michigan Amendment and no similar allegations of past discrimination in the Michigan university system, the Court declined to “restrict the right of Michigan voters to determine that race-based preferences granted by state entities should be ended.”1732 The plurality opinion and a majority of the Court, however, explicitly rejected a broader “political process theory” with respect to the constitutionality of race-based remedies. Specifically, the Court held that state action that places effective decision making over a policy that “inures primarily to the benefit of the minority” at a different level of government is not subject to heightened constitutional scrutiny.1733


Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education, 402 U.S. 1, 30–31 (1971). back
Milliken v. Bradley, 418 U.S. 717, 744 (1974). back
E.g., § 407(a) of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 78 Stat. 248, 42 U.S.C. § 2000c–6, construed to cover only de facto segregation in Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Bd. of Educ., 402 U.S. 1, 17–18 (1971); § 803 of the Education Amendments of 1972, 86 Stat. 372, 20 U.S.C. § 1653 (expired), interpreted in Drummond v. Acree, 409 U.S. 1228 (1972) (Justice Powell in Chambers), and the Equal Educational Opportunities and Transportation of Students Act of 1974, 88 Stat. 514 (1974), 20 U.S.C. §§ 17011757, see especially § 1714, interpreted in Morgan v. Kerrigan, 530 F.2d 401, 411–15 (1st Cir.), cert. denied, 426 U.S. 995 (1976), and United States v. Texas Education Agency, 532 F.2d 380, 394 n.18 (5th Cir.), vacated on other grounds sub nom. Austin Indep. School Dist. v. United States, 429 U.S. 990 (1976); and a series of annual appropriations riders, first passed as riders to the 1976 and 1977 Labor-HEW bills, § 108, 90 Stat. 1434 (1976), and § 101, 91 Stat. 1460, 42 U.S.C. § 2000d, upheld against facial attack in Brown v. Califano, 627 F.2d 1221 (D.C. Cir. 1980). back
See, e.g., The 14th Amendment and School Busing: Hearings Before the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, 97th Congress, 1st Sess. (1981); and School Desegregation: Hearings Before the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Civil and Constitutional Rights, 97th Congress, 1st Sess. (1981). back
Washington v. Seattle School Dist., 458 U.S. 457 (1982); Crawford v. Los Angeles Bd. of Educ., 458 U.S. 527 (1982). The decisions were in essence an application of Hunter v. Erickson, 393 U.S. 385 (1969). back
Washington v. Seattle School Dist., 458 U.S. 457, 470–82 (1982). Justice Blackmun wrote the opinion of the Court and was joined by Justices Brennan, White, Marshall, and Stevens. Dissenting were Justices Powell, Rehnquist, O’Connor, and Chief Justice Burger. Id. at 488. The dissent essentially argued that because the state was ultimately entirely responsible for all educational decisions, its choice to take back part of the power it had delegated did not raise the issues the majority thought it did. back
Crawford v. Los Angeles Bd. of Educ., 458 U.S. 527, 535–40 (1982). back
572 U.S. ___, No. 12–682, slip op. (2014). back
The plurality opinion was written by Justice Kennedy, joined by Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Alito. Justice Scalia authored an opinion concurring in judgment, joined by Justice Thomas, arguing that Seattle School District and the case on which it was based should be overturned in their entirety. Schuette, slip op. at 7–8 (Scalia, J., concurring in judgment). Justice Breyer also wrote an opinion concurring in judgment that the Michigan amendment did not violate the Equal Protection Clause. Specifically, Justice Breyer relied on the facts that (1) the amendment forbid racial preferences aimed at achieving diversity in education (as opposed to remedying past discrimination); (2) the amendment was aimed at ensuring that the democratic process (as opposed to the university administration) controlled with respect to affirmative action policy; and (3) the underlying racial preference policy had been adopted by individual school administrations, not by elected officials. Id. at 5 (Breyer, J., concurring in judgment). Justice Sotomayor, joined by Justice Ginsburg, dissented. Id. at 5, 22 (Sotomayor, J., dissenting). Justice Kagan recused herself. back
Id. at 3–4 (plurality opinion). back
Id. at 11 (plurality opinion). back