Board of Ed. of Oklahoma City v. Dowell (89-1080), 498 U.S. 237 (1991)
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NOTICE: This opinion is subject to formal revision before publication in the preliminary print of the United States Reports. Readers are requested to notify the Reporter of Decisions, Supreme Court of the United States, Washington, D. C. 20543, of any typographical or other formal errors, in order that corrections may be made before the preliminary print goes to press.

No. 89-1080

[January 15, 1991]

Chief Justice Rehnquist delivered the opinion of the Court.

Petitioner Board of Education of Oklahoma City sought dissolution of a decree entered by the District Court imposing a school desegregation plan. The District Court granted relief over the objection of respondents Robert L. Dowell, et al., black students and their parents. The Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit reversed, holding that the Board would be entitled to such relief only upon " '[n]othing less than a clear showing of grievous wrong evoked by new and unforeseen conditions . . . .' " 890 F. 2d 1483, 1490 (1989) (citation omitted). We hold that the Court of Appeals' test is more stringent than is required either by our cases dealing with injunctions or by the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.


This school desegregation litigation began almost 30 years ago. In 1961, respondents, black students and their parents, sued petitioners, the Board of Education of Oklahoma City (Board), to end de jure segregation in the public schools. In 1963, the District Court found that Oklahoma City had intentionally segregated both schools and housing in the past, and that Oklahoma City was operating a "dual" school system — one that was intentionally segregated by race. Dowell v. School Board of Oklahoma City Public Schools, 219 F. Supp. 427 (WD Okla.). In 1965, the District Court found that the School Board's attempt to desegregate by using neighborhood zoning failed to remedy past segregation because residential segregation resulted in one-race schools. Dowell v. School Board of Oklahoma City Public Schools, 244 F. Supp. 971, 975 (WD Okla.). Residential segregation had once been state imposed, and it lingered due to discrimination by some realtors and financial institutions. Ibid. The District Court found that school segregation had caused some housing segregation. Id., at 976-977. In 1972, finding that previous efforts had not been successful at eliminating state imposed segregation, the District Court ordered the Board to adopt the "Finger Plan," Dowell v. Board of Education of Oklahoma City Public Schools, 338 F. Supp. 1256, aff'd, 465 F. 2d 1012 (CA10), cert. denied, 409 U.S. 1041 (1972), under which kindergarteners would be assigned to neighborhood schools unless their parents opted otherwise; children in grades 1-4 would attend formerly all white schools, and thus black children would be bused to those schools; children in grade five would attend formerly all black schools, and thus white children would be bused to those schools; students in the upper grades would be bused to various areas in order to maintain integrated schools; and in integrated neighborhoods there would be stand-alone schools for all grades.

In 1977, after complying with the desegregation decree for five years, the Board made a "Motion to Close Case." The District Court held in its "Order Terminating Case":

"The Court has concluded that [the Finger Plan] worked and that substantial compliance with the constitutional requirements has been achieved. The School Board, under the oversight of the Court, has operated the Plan properly, and the Court does not foresee that the termination of its jurisdiction will result in the dismantlement of the Plan or any affirmative action by the defendant to undermine the unitary system so slowly and painfully accomplished over the 16 years during which the cause has been pending before this court. . . .

". . . The School Board, as now constituted, has manifested the desire and intent to follow the law. The court believes that the present members and their successors on the Board will now and in the future continue to follow the constitutional desegregation requirements.

"Now sensitized to the constitutional implications of its conduct and with a new awareness of its responsibility to citizens of all races, the Board is entitled to pursue in good faith its legitimate policies without the continuing constitutional supervision of this Court. . . .

. . . . .

". . . Jurisdiction in this case is terminated ipso facto subject only to final disposition of any case now pending on appeal." No. Civ-9452 (WD Okla., Jan. 18, 1977); App. 174-176.

This unpublished order was not appealed.

In 1984, the School Board faced demographic changes that led to greater burdens on young black children. As more and more neighborhoods became integrated, more standalone schools were established, and young black students had to be bused further from their inner-city homes to outlying white areas. In an effort to alleviate this burden and to increase parental involvement, the Board adopted the Student Reassignment Plan (SRP), which relied on neighborhood assignments for students in grades K-4 beginning in the 1985-1986 school year. Busing continued for students in grades 5-12. Any student could transfer from a school where he or she was in the majority to a school where he or she would be in the minority. Faculty and staff integration was retained, and an "equity officer" was appointed.

In 1985, respondents filed a "Motion to Reopen the Case," contending that the School District had not achieved "unitary" status and that the SRP was a return to segregation. Under the SRP, 11 of 64 elementary schools would be greater than 90" black, 22 would be greater than 90" white plus other minorities, and 31 would be racially mixed. The District Court refused to reopen the case, holding that its 1977 finding of unitariness was res judicata as to those who were then parties to the action, and that the district remained unitary. Dowell v. Board of Education of Oklahoma City Public Schools, 606 F. Supp. 1548 (WD Okla. 1985). The District Court found that the School Board, administration, faculty, support staff, and student body were integrated, and transportation, extracurricular activities and facilities within the district were equal and nondiscriminatory. Because uni tariness had been achieved, the District Court concluded that court-ordered desegregation must end.

The Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit reversed, Dowell v. Board of Education of Oklahoma City Public Schools, 795 F. 2d 1516, cert. denied, 479 U.S. 938 (1986). It held that, while the 1977 order finding the district unitary was binding on the parties, nothing in that order indicated that the 1972 injunction itself was terminated. The court reasoned that the finding that the system was unitary merely ended the District Court's active supervision of the case, and because the school district was still subject to the desegregation decree, respondents could challenge the SRP. The case was remanded to determine whether the decree should be lifted or modified.

On remand, the District Court found that demographic changes made the Finger Plan unworkable, that the Board had done nothing for 25 years to promote residential segregation, and that the school district had bused students for more than a decade in good-faith compliance with the court's orders. 677 F. Supp. 1503 (WD Okla. 1987). The District Court found that present residential segregation was the result of private decisionmaking and economics, and that it was too attenuated to be a vestige of former school segregation. It also found that the district had maintained its unitary status, and that the neighborhood assignment plan was not designed with discriminatory intent. The court concluded that the previous injunctive decree should be vacated and the school district returned to local control.

The Court of Appeals again reversed, 890 F. 2d 1483 (CA10 1989), holding that " 'an injunction takes on a life of its own and becomes an edict quite independent of the law it is meant to effectuate.' " Id., at 1490 (citation omitted). That court approached the case "not so much as one dealing with desegregation, but as one dealing with the proper application of the federal law on injunctive remedies." Id., at 1486. Relying on United States v. Swift & Co., 286 U.S. 106 (1932), it held that a desegregation decree remains in effect until a school district can show "grievous wrong evoked by new and unforseen conditions," 286 U. S., at 119, and "dramatic changes in conditions unforseen at the time of the decree that . . . impose extreme and unexpectedly oppressive hardships on the obligor." 890 F. 2d, at 1490 (quoting T. Jost, From Swift to Stotts and Beyond: Modification of Injunctions in the Federal Courts, 64 Tex. L. Rev. 1101, 1110 (1986)). Given that a number of schools would return to being primarily one-race schools under the SRP, circumstances in Oklahoma City had not changed enough to justify modification of the decree. The Court of Appeals held that, despite the unitary finding, the Board had the " 'affirmative duty . . . not to take any action that would impede the process of disestablishing the dual system and its effects.' " 890 F. 2d, at 1504 (quoting Dayton Bd. of Education v. Brink man, 443 U.S. 526, 538 (1979)).

We granted the Board's petition for certiorari, 494 U. S. 1055 (1990), to resolve a conflict between the standard laid down by the Court of Appeals in this case and that laid down in Spangler v. Pasadena City Board of Education, 611 F. 2d 1239 (CA9 1979), and Riddick v. School Bd. of City of Norfolk, 784 F. 2d 521 (CA4 1986). We now reverse the Court of Appeals.


We must first consider whether respondents may contest the District Court's 1987 order dissolving the injunction which had imposed the desegregation decree. Respondents did not appeal from the District Court's 1977 order finding that the school system had achieved unitary status, and petitioners contend that the 1977 order bars respondents from contesting the 1987 order. We disagree, for the 1977 order did not dissolve the desegregation decree, and the District Court's unitariness finding was too ambiguous to bar respondents from challenging later action by the Board.

The lower courts have been inconsistent in their use of the term "unitary." Some have used it to identify a school district that has completely remedied all vestiges of past discrimination. See, e. g., United States v. Overton, 834 F. 2d 1171, 1175 (CA5 1987); Riddick v. School Bd. of City of Norfolk, supra, at 533-534; Vaughns v. Board of Education of Prince George's Cty., 758 F. 2d 983, 988 (CA4 1985). Under that interpretation of the word, a unitary school district is one that has met the mandate of Brown v. Board of Education, 349 U.S. 294 (1955), and Green v. New Kent County School Board, 391 U.S. 430 (1968). Other courts, however, have used "unitary" to describe any school district that has currently desegregated student assignments, whether or not that status is solely the result of a courtimposed desegregation plan. See, e. g., 890 F. 2d, at 14. In other words, such a school district could be called unitary and nevertheless still contain vestiges of past discrimination. That there is such confusion is evident in Georgia State Conference of Branches of NAACP v. Georgia, 775 F. 2d 1403 (CA11 1985), where the Court of Appeals drew a distinction between a "unitary school district" and a district that has achieved "unitary status." The court explained that a school district that has not operated segregated schools as proscribed by Green v. New Kent County School Board, supra, and Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Bd. of Education, 402 U.S. 1 (1971), "for a period of several years" is unitary, but that a school district cannot be said to have achieved "unitary status" unless it "has eliminated the vestiges of its prior discrimination and has been adjudicated as such through the proper judicial procedures." Georgia State Conference, supra, at 1413, n. 12.

We think it is a mistake to treat words such as "dual" and "unitary" as if they were actually found in the Constitution. The constitutional command of the Fourteenth Amendment is that "[n]o State shall . . . deny to any person . . . the equal protection of the laws." Courts have used the terms "dual" to denote a school system which has engaged in intentional segregation of students by race, and "unitary" to describe a school system which has been brought into compliance with the command of the Constitution. We are not sure how useful it is to define these terms more precisely, or to create subclasses within them. But there is no doubt that the differences in usage described above do exist. The District Court's 1977 order is unclear with respect to what it meant by unitary and the necessary result of that finding. We therefore decline to overturn the conclusion of the Court of Appeals that while the 1977 order of the District Court did bind the parties as to the unitary character of the district, it did not finally terminate the Oklahoma City school litigation. In Pasadena City Bd. of Education v. Spangler, 427 U.S. 424 (1976), we held that a school board is entitled to a rather precise statement of its obligations under a desegregation decree. If such a decree is to be terminated or dissolved, respondents as well as the school board are entitled to a like statement from the court.


The Court of Appeals relied upon language from this Court's decision in United States v. Swift and Co., supra, for the proposition that a desegregation decree could not be lifted or modified absent a showing of "grievous wrong evoked by new and unforeseen conditions." Id., at 119. It also held that "compliance alone cannot become the basis for modifying or dissolving an injunction," 890 F. 2d, at 1491, relying on United States v. W. T. Grant Co., 345 U.S. 629, 633 (1953). We hold that its reliance was mistaken.

In Swift, several large meat-packing companies entered into a consent decree whereby they agreed to refrain forever from entering into the grocery business. The decree was by its terms effective in perpetuity. The defendant meat-packers and their allies had over a period of a decade attempted, often with success in the lower courts, to frustrate operation of the decree. It was in this context that the language relied upon by the Court of Appeals in this case was used.

United States v. United Shoe Machinery Corp., 391 U.S. 244 (1968), explained that the language used in Swift must be read in the context of the continuing danger of unlawful restraints on trade which the Court had found still existed. Id., at 248. "Swift teaches . . . a decree may be changed upon an appropriate showing, and it holds that it may not be changed . . . if the purposes of the litigation as incorporated in the decree . . . have not been fully achieved." Ibid. (emphasis deleted). In the present case, a finding by the District Court that the Oklahoma City School District was being operated in compliance with the commands of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, and that it was unlikely that the school board would return to its former ways, would be a finding that the purposes of the desegregation litigation had been fully achieved. No additional showing of "grievous wrong evoked by new and unforeseen conditions" is required of the school board.

In Milliken v. Bradley (Milliken II), 433 U.S. 267 (1977), we said:

"[F]ederal-court decrees must directly address and relate to the constitutional violation itself. Because of this inherent limitation upon federal judicial authority, federal-court decrees exceed appropriate limits if they are aimed at eliminating a condition that does not violate the Constitution or does not flow from such a violation . . . ." Id., at 282.

From the very first, federal supervision of local school systems was intended as a temporary measure to remedy past discrimination. Brown considered the "complexities arising from the transition to a system of public education freed of racial discrimination" in holding that the implementation of desegregation was to proceed "with all deliberate speed." 349 U. S., at 299-301 (emphasis added). Green also spoke of the "transition to a unitary, nonracial system of public education." 391 U. S., at 436 (emphasis added).

Considerations based on the allocation of powers within our federal system, we think, support our view that quoted language from Swift does not provide the proper standard to apply to injunctions entered in school desegregation cases. Such decrees, unlike the one in Swift, are not intended to operate in perpetuity. Local control over the education of children allows citizens to participate in decisionmaking, and allows innovation so that school programs can fit local needs. Milliken v. Bradley (Milliken I), 418 U.S. 717, 742 (1974); San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez, 411 U.S. 1, 50 (1973). The legal justification for displacement of local authority by an injunctive decree in a school desegregation case is a violation of the Constitution by the local authorities. Dissolving a desegregation decree after the local authorities have operated in compliance with it for a reasonable period of time properly recognizes that "necessary concern for the important values of local control of public school systems dictates that a federal court's regulatory control of such systems not extend beyond the time required to remedy the effects of past intentional discrimination. See Milliken v. Bradley [Milliken II], 433 U. S. at 280-82." Spangler v. Pasadena City Bd. of Education, 611 F. 2d, at 1245, n. 5 (Kennedy, J., concurring).

The Court of Appeals, as noted, relied for its statement that "compliance alone cannot become the basis for modifying or dissolving an injunction" on our decision in United States v. W. T. Grant Co., supra, at 633. That case, however, did not involve the dissolution of an injunction, but the question of whether an injunction should be issued in the first place. This Court observed that a promise to comply with the law on the part of a wrongdoer did not divest a district court of its power to enjoin the wrongful conduct in which the defendant had previously engaged.

A district court need not accept at face value the profession of a school board which has intentionally discriminated that it will cease to do so in the future. But in deciding whether to modify or dissolve a desegregation decree, a school board's compliance with previous court orders is obviously relevant. In this case the original finding of de jure segregation was entered in 1961, the injunctive decree from which the Board seeks relief was entered in 1972, and the Board complied with the decree in good faith until 1985. Not only do the personnel of school boards change over time, but the same passage of time enables the District Court to observe the good faith of the school board in complying with the decree. The test espoused by the Court of Appeals would condemn a school district, once governed by a board which intentionally discriminated, to judicial tutelage for the indefinite future. Neither the principles governing the entry and dissolution of in junctive decrees, nor the commands of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, require any such Draconian result.

Petitioners urge that we reinstate the decision of the District Court terminating the injunction, but we think that the preferable course is to remand the case to that court so that it may decide, in accordance with this opinion, whether the Board made a sufficient showing of constitutional compliance as of 1985, when the SRP was adopted, to allow the injunction to be dissolved. [n.1] The District Court should address itself to whether the Board had complied in good faith with the desegregation decree since it was entered, and whether the vestiges of past discrimination had been eliminated to the extent practicable. [n.2]

In considering whether the vestiges of de jure segregation had been eliminated as far as practicable, the District Court should look not only at student assignments, but "to every facet of school operations — faculty, staff, transportation, extra-curricular activities and facilities." Green, 391 U. S., at 435. See also Swann, 402 U. S., at 18 ("[E]xisting policy and practice with regard to faculty, staff, transportation, extra-curricular activities, and facilities" are "among the most important indicia of a segregated system").

After the District Court decides whether the Board was entitled to have the decree terminated, it should proceed to decide respondent's challenge to the SRP. A school district which has been released from an injunction imposing a desegregation plan no longer requires court authorization for the promulgation of policies and rules regulating matters such as assignment of students and the like, but it of course remains subject to the mandate of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. If the Board was entitled to have the decree terminated as of 1985, the District Court should then evaluate the Board's decision to implement the SRP under appropriate equal protection principles. See Washington v. Davis, 426 U.S. 229 (1976); Arlington Heights v. Metropolitan Housing Development Corp., 429 U.S. 252 (1977).

The judgment of the Court of Appeals is reversed, and the case is remanded to the District Court for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

It is so ordered.

Justice Souter took no part in the consideration or decision of this case.


1 The Court of Appeals viewed the Board's adoption of the SRP as a vio lation of its obligation under the injunction, and technically it may well have been. But just as the Court of Appeals held that the respondent should not be penalized for failure to appeal from an order that by hindsight was ambiguous, we do not think that the Board should be penalized for relying on the express language of that order. The District Court in its decision on remand should not treat the adoption of the SRP as a breach of good faith on the part of the Board.

2 As noted above, the District Court earlier found that present residential segregation in Oklahoma City was the result of private decisionmaking and economics, and that it was too attenuated to be a vestige of former school segregation. Respondents contend that the Court of Appeals held this finding was clearly erroneous, but we think its opinion is at least ambiguous on this point. The only operative use of "clearly erroneous" language is in the final paragraph of subpart VI-D of its opinion, and it is perfectly plausible to read the clearly erroneous findings as dealing only with the issues considered in that part of the opinion. To dispel any doubt, we direct the District Court and the Court of Appeals to treat this question as res nova upon further consideration of the case.