Northern Schools: Inter- and Intradistrict Desegregation.

The appearance in the Court of school cases from large metropolitan areas in which the separation of the races was not mandated by law but allegedly by official connivance through zoning of school boundaries, pupil and teacher assignment policies, and site selections, required the development of standards for determining when segregation was de jure and what remedies should be imposed when such official separation was found.1701

Accepting the findings of lower courts that the actions of local school officials and the state school board were responsible in part for the racial segregation existing within the school system of the City of Detroit, the Court in Milliken v. Bradley1702 set aside a desegregation order which required the formulation of a plan for a metropolitan area including the City and 53 adjacent suburban school districts. The basic holding of the Court was that such a remedy could be implemented only to cure an inter-district constitutional violation, a finding that the actions of state officials and of the suburban school districts were responsible, at least in part, for the interdistrict segregation, through either discriminatory actions within those jurisdictions or constitutional violations within one district that had produced a significant segregative effect in another district.1703 The permissible scope of an inter-district order, however, would have to be considered in light of the Court’s language regarding the value placed upon local educational units. “No single tradition in public education is more deeply rooted than local control over the operation of schools; local autonomy has long been thought essential both to the maintenance of community concern and support for public schools and to quality of the educational process.”1704 Too, the complexity of formulating and overseeing the implementation of a plan that would effect a de facto consolidation of multiple school districts, the Court indicated, would impose a task that few, if any, judges are qualified to perform and one that would deprive the people of control of their schools through elected representatives.1705 “The constitutional right of the Negro respondents residing in Detroit is to attend a unitary school system in that district.”1706

“The controlling principle consistently expounded in our holdings,” the Court wrote in the Detroit case, “is that the scope of the remedy is determined by the nature and extent of the constitutional violation.”1707 Although this axiom caused little problem when the violation consisted of statutorily mandated separation,1708 it required a considerable expenditure of judicial effort and parsing of opinions to work out in the context of systems in which the official practice was nondiscriminatory, but official action operated to the contrary. At first, the difficulty was obscured through the creation of presumptions that eased the burden of proof on plaintiffs, but later the Court appeared to stiffen the requirements on plaintiffs.

Determination of the existence of a constitutional violation and the formulation of remedies, within one district, first was presented to the Court in a northern setting in Keyes v. Denver School District.1709 The lower courts had found the school segregation existing within one part of the city to be attributable to official action, but as to the central city they found the separation not to be the result of official action and refused to impose a remedy for those schools. The Supreme Court found this latter holding to be error, holding that, when it is proved that a significant portion of a system is officially segregated, the presumption arises that segregation in the remainder or other portions of the system is also similarly contrived. The burden then shifts to the school board or other officials to rebut the presumption by proving, for example, that geographical structure or natural boundaries have caused the dividing of a district into separate identifiable and unrelated units. Thus, a finding that one significant portion of a school system is officially segregated may well be the predicate for finding that the entire system is a dual one, necessitating the imposition upon the school authorities of the affirmative obligation to create a unitary system throughout.1710

Keyes then was consistent with earlier cases requiring a showing of official complicity in segregation and limiting the remedy to the violation found; by creating presumptions Keyes simply afforded plaintiffs a way to surmount the barriers imposed by strict application of the requirements. Following the enunciation in the Detroit inter-district case, however, of the “controlling principle” of school desegregation cases, the Court appeared to move away from the Keyes approach.1711 First, the Court held that federal equity power was lacking to impose orders to correct demographic shifts “not attributed to any segregative actions on the part of the defendants.”1712 A district court that had ordered implementation of a student assignment plan that resulted in a racially neutral system exceeded its authority, the Court held, by ordering annual readjustments to offset the demographic changes.1713

Second, in the first Dayton case the lower courts had found three constitutional violations that had resulted in some pupil segregation, and, based on these three, viewed as “cumulative violations,” a district-wide transportation plan had been imposed. Reversing, the Supreme Court reiterated that the remedial powers of the federal courts are called forth by violations and are limited by the scope of those violations. “Once a constitutional violation is found, a federal court is required to tailor ‘the scope of the remedy’ to fit ‘the nature and extent of the constitutional violation.’ ”1714 The goal is to restore the plaintiffs to the position they would have occupied had they not been subject to unconstitutional action. Lower courts “must determine how much incremental segregative effect these violations had on the racial distribution of the Dayton school population as presently constituted, when that distribution is compared to what it would have been in the absence of such constitutional violations. The remedy must be designed to redress that difference, and only if there has been a systemwide impact may there be a systemwide remedy.”1715 The Court then sent the case back to the district court for the taking of evidence, the finding of the nature of the violations, and the development of an appropriate remedy.

Surprisingly, however, Keyes was reaffirmed and broadly applied in subsequent appeals of the Dayton case after remand and in an appeal from Columbus, Ohio.1716 Following the Supreme Court standards, the Dayton district court held that the plaintiffs had failed to prove official segregative intent, but was reversed by the appeals court. The Columbus district court had found and had been affirmed in finding racially discriminatory conduct and had ordered extensive busing. The Supreme Court held that the evidence adduced in both district courts showed that the school boards had carried out segregating actions affecting a substantial portion of each school system prior to and contemporaneously with the 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education. The Keyes presumption therefore required the school boards to show that systemwide discrimination had not existed, and they failed to do so. Because each system was a dual one in 1954, it was subject to an “affirmative duty to take whatever steps might be necessary to convert to a unitary system in which racial discrimination would be eliminated root and branch.”1717 Following 1954, segregated schools continued to exist and the school boards had in fact taken actions which had the effect of increasing segregation. In the context of the on-going affirmative duty to desegregate, the foreseeable impact of the actions of the boards could be used to infer segregative intent, thus satisfying the Davis-Arlington Heights standards.1718 The Court further affirmed the district-wide remedies, holding that its earlier Dayton ruling had been premised upon the evidence of only a few isolated discriminatory practices; here, because systemwide impact had been found, systemwide remedies were appropriate.1719

Reaffirmation of the breadth of federal judicial remedial powers came when, in a second appeal of the Detroit case, the Court unanimously upheld the order of a district court mandating compensatory or remedial educational programs for school children who had been subjected to past acts of de jure segregation. So long as the remedy is related to the condition found to violate the Constitution, so long as it is remedial, and so long as it takes into account the interests of state and local authorities in managing their own affairs, federal courts have broad and flexible powers to remedy past wrongs.1720

The broad scope of federal courts’ remedial powers was more recently reaffirmed in Missouri v. Jenkins.1721 There the Court ruled that a federal district court has the power to order local authorities to impose a tax increase in order to pay to remedy a constitutional violation, and if necessary may enjoin operation of state laws prohibiting such tax increases. However, the Court also held, the district court had abused its discretion by itself imposing an increase in property taxes without first affording local officials “the opportunity to devise their own solutions.”1722


The presence or absence of a statute mandating separation provides no talisman indicating the distinction between de jure and de facto segregation. Columbus Bd. of Educ. v. Penick, 443 U.S. 449, 457 n.5 (1979). As early as Ex parte Virginia, 100 U.S. 339, 347 (1880), it was said that “no agency of the State, or of the officers or agents by whom its powers are exerted, shall deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws. Whoever, by virtue of public position under a State government, . . . denies or takes away the equal protection of the laws . . . violates the constitutional inhibition: and as he acts in the name and for the State, and is clothed with the State’s power, his act is that of the State.” The significance of a statute is that it simplifies in the extreme a complainant’s proof. back
418 U.S. 717 (1974). back
418 U.S. at 745. back
418 U.S. at 741–42. back
418 U.S. at 742–43. This theme has been sounded in a number of cases in suits seeking remedial actions in particularly intractable areas. Mayor of Philadelphia v. Educational Equality League, 415 U.S. 605, 615 (1974); O’Shea v. Littleton, 414 U.S. 488, 500–02 (1974). In Hills v. Gautreaux, 425 U.S. 284, 293 (1976), the Court wrote that it had rejected the metropolitan order because of “fundamental limitations on the remedial powers of the federal courts to restructure the operation of local and state governmental entities . . . .” In other places, the Court stressed the absence of interdistrict violations, id. at 294, and in still others paired the two reasons. Id. at 296. back
Milliken v. Bradley, 418 U.S. 717, 746 (1974). The four dissenters argued both that state involvement was so pervasive that an inter-district order was permissible and that such an order was mandated because it was the State’s obligation to establish a unitary system, an obligation which could not be met without an inter-district order. Id . at 757, 762, 781. back
418 U.S. at 744. See Hills v. Gautreaux, 425 U.S. 284, 294 n.11 (1976) (“[T]he Court’s decision in Milliken was premised on a controlling principle governing the permissible scope of federal judicial power.”); Austin Indep. School Dist. v. United States, 429 U.S. 990, 991 (1976) (Justice Powell concurring) (“a core principle of desegregation cases” is that set out in Milliken). back
When an entire school system has been separated into white and black schools by law, disestablishment of the system and integration of the entire system is required. “Having once found a violation, the district judge or school authorities should make every effort to achieve the greatest possible degree of actual desegregation, taking into account the practicalities of the situation. . . . The measure of any desegregation plan is its effectiveness.” Davis v. Board of School Comm’rs, 402 U.S. 33, 37 (1971). See Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Bd. of Educ., 402 U.S. 1, 25 (1971). back
413 U.S. 189 (1973). back
413 U.S. at 207–11. Justice Rehnquist argued that imposition of a district-wide segregation order should not proceed from a finding of segregative intent and effect in only one portion, that in effect the Court was imposing an affirmative obligation to integrate without first finding a constitutional violation. Id. at 254 (dissenting). Justice Powell cautioned district courts against imposing disruptive desegregation plans, especially substantial busing in large metropolitan areas, and stressed the responsibility to proceed with reason, flexibility, and balance. Id. at 217, 236 (concurring and dissenting). See his opinion in Austin Indep. School Dist. v. United States, 429 U.S. 990, 991 (1976) (concurring). back
Of significance was the disallowance of the disproportionate impact analysis in constitutional interpretation and the adoption of an apparently strengthened intent requirement. Washington v. Davis, 426 U.S. 229 (1976); Village of Arlington Heights v. Metropolitan Housing Dev. Corp., 429 U.S. 252 (1977); Massachusetts Personnel Adm’r v. Feeney, 442 U.S. 256 (1979). This principle applies in the school area. Dayton Bd. of Educ. v. Brinkman, 433 U.S. 406, 419 (1977). back
Pasadena City Bd. of Educ. v. Spangler, 427 U.S. 424 (1976). back
427 U.S. at 436. back
Dayton Bd. of Educ. v. Brinkman, 433 U.S. 406, 420 (1977) (quoting Hills v. Gautreaux, 425 U.S. 284, 294 (1976)). back
Dayton Bd. of Educ. v. Brinkman, 433 U.S. 406, 420 (1977). The Court did not discuss the presumptions that had been permitted by Keyes. Justice Brennan, the author of Keyes, concurred on the basis that the violations found did not justify the remedy imposed, asserting that the methods of proof used in Keyes were still valid. Id. at 421. back
Columbus Bd. of Educ. v. Penick, 443 U.S. 449 (1979); Dayton Bd. of Educ. v. Brinkman, 443 U.S. 526 (1979). back
Columbus Bd. of Educ. v. Penick, 443 U.S. 449, 459 (1979) (quoting Green v. School Bd. of New Kent County, 391 U.S. 430, 437–38 (1968)). Contrast the Court’s more recent decision in Bazemore v. Friday, 478 U.S. 385 (1986) (per curiam), holding that adoption of “a wholly neutral admissions policy” for voluntary membership in state-sponsored 4–H Clubs was sufficient even though single race clubs continued to exist under that policy. There is no constitutional requirement that states in all circumstances pursue affirmative remedies to overcome past discrimination, the Court concluded; the voluntary nature of the clubs, unrestricted by state definition of attendance zones or other decisions affecting membership, presented a “wholly different milieu” from public schools. Id. at 408 (concurring opinion of Justice White, endorsed by the Court’s per curiam opinion). back
443 U.S. at 461–65. back
443 U.S. at 465–67. back
Milliken v. Bradley, 433 U.S. 267 (1977). The Court also affirmed that part of the order directing the State of Michigan to pay one-half the costs of the mandated programs. Id. at 288–91. back
495 U.S. 33 (1990). back
495 U.S. at 52. Similarly, the Court held in Spallone v. United States, 493 U.S. 265 (1990), that a district court had abused its discretion in imposing contempt sanctions directly on members of a city council for refusing to vote to implement a consent decree designed to remedy housing discrimination. Instead, the court should have proceeded first against the city alone, and should have proceeded against individual council members only if the sanctions against the city failed to produce compliance. back