Board of Education of Oklahoma City Public Schools v. Dowell

Board of Education of Oklahoma City Public Schools v. Dowell

498 U.S. 237 (1991)

[Majority: Rehnquist (C.J.), White, O’Connor, Scalia, and Kennedy. Dissenting: Marshall, Blackmun, and Stevens.]

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. . . .'” 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 14th Amendment.

  1. 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. 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. Residential segregation had once been state imposed, and it lingered due to discrimination by some realtors and financial institutions. The District Court found that school segregation had caused some housing segregation. 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,” 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 1984, the School Board faced demographic changes that led to greater burdens on young black children. As [the city grew], more stand-alone 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. 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 unitariness had been achieved, the District Court concluded that court-ordered desegregation must end.

The Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit reversed. 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. 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, 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.'” 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.” Relying on United States v. Swift & Co. (1932), it held that a desegregation decree remains in effect until a school district can show “grievous wrong evoked by new and unforeseen conditions,” and “dramatic changes in conditions unforeseen at the time of the decree that . . . impose extreme and unexpectedly oppressive hardships on the obligor.” 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.'”

We granted the Board’s petition for certiorari, to resolve a conflict between the standard laid down by [different circuits]. We now reverse the Court of Appeals. . . .

III. The Court of Appeals relied upon language from this Court’s decision in United States v. Swift & Co. (1932), 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.” It also held that “compliance alone cannot become the basis for modifying or dissolving an injunction.” We hold that its reliance was mistaken. . . .

In Milliken v. Bradley (Milliken II) (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. . . .” From the very first, federal supervision of local school systems was intended as a temporary measure to remedy past discrimination. Brown v. Board of Education (Brown II) (1955) 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.” Green v. County School Bd. of New Kent (1968) also spoke of the “transition to a unitary, nonracial system of public education.”

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. 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. . . .”

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 injunctive decrees, nor the commands of the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment, require any such Draconian result. . . .

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

Justice Marshall, with whom Justice Blackmun and Justice Stevens join, dissenting.

Oklahoma gained statehood in 1907. For the next 65 years, the Oklahoma City School Board maintained segregated schools — initially relying on laws requiring dual school systems; thereafter, by exploiting residential segregation that had been created by legally enforced restrictive covenants. In 1972 — 18 years after this Court first found segregated schools unconstitutional — a federal court finally interrupted this cycle, enjoining the Oklahoma City School Board to implement a specific plan for achieving actual desegregation of its schools.

The practical question now before us is whether, 13 years after that injunction was imposed, the same School Board should have been allowed to return many of its elementary schools to their former one-race status. The majority today suggests that 13 years of desegregation was enough. The Court remands the case for further evaluation of whether the purposes of the injunctive decree were achieved sufficient to justify the decree’s dissolution. However, the inquiry it commends to the District Court fails to recognize explicitly the threatened reemergence of one-race schools as a relevant “vestige” of de jure segregation.

In my view, the standard for dissolution of a school desegregation decree must reflect the central aim of our school desegregation precedents. In Brown v. Board of Education (1954) (Brown I), a unanimous Court declared that racially “[s]eparate educational facilities are inherently unequal.” This holding rested on the Court’s recognition that state-sponsored segregation conveys a message of “inferiority as to th[e] status [of Afro-American school children] in the community that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely ever to be undone.” Remedying this evil and preventing its recurrence were the motivations animating our requirement that formerly de jure segregated school districts take all feasible steps to eliminate racially identifiable schools.

I believe a desegregation decree cannot be lifted so long as conditions likely to inflict the stigmatic injury condemned in Brown I persist and there remain feasible methods of eliminating such conditions. Because the record here shows, and the Court of Appeals found, that feasible steps could be taken to avoid one-race schools, it is clear that the purposes of the decree have not yet been achieved and the Court of Appeals’ reinstatement of the decree should be affirmed. I therefore dissent.

  1. In order to assess the full consequence of lifting the decree at issue in this case, it is necessary to explore more fully than does the majority the history of racial segregation in the Oklahoma City schools. This history reveals nearly unflagging resistance by the Board to judicial efforts to dismantle the City’s dual education system.

When Oklahoma was admitted to the Union in 1907, its Constitution mandated separation of Afro-American children from all other races in the public school system. In addition to laws enforcing segregation in the schools, racially restrictive covenants, supported by state and local law, established a segregated residential pattern in Oklahoma City. Petitioner Board of Education of Oklahoma City (Board) exploited this residential segregation to enforce school segregation, locating “all-Negro” schools in the heart of the City’s northeast quadrant, in which the majority of the City’s Afro-American citizens resided.

Matters did not change in Oklahoma City after this Court’s decision in Brown I and Brown II (1955). Although new school boundaries were established at that time, the Board also adopted a resolution allowing children to continue in the schools in which they were placed or to submit transfer requests that would be considered on a case-by-case basis. Because it allowed thousands of white children each year to transfer to schools in which their race was the majority, this transfer policy undermined any potential desegregation.

Parents of Afro-American children relegated to schools in the northeast quadrant filed suit against the Board in 1961. Finding that the Board’s special transfer policy was “designed to perpetuate and encourage segregation,” the District Court struck down the policy as a violation of the Equal Protection Clause. Undeterred, the Board proceeded to adopt another special transfer policy which, as the District Court found in 1965, had virtually the same effect as the prior policy — “perpetuat[ion] [of] a segregated system.”

The District Court also noted that, by failing to adopt an affirmative policy of desegregation, the Board had reversed the desegregation process in certain respects. For example, eight of the nine new schools planned or under construction in 1965 were located to serve all-white or virtually all-white school zones. Rather than promote integration through new school locations, the District Court found that the Board destroyed some integrated neighborhoods and schools by adopting inflexible neighborhood school attendance zones that encouraged whites to migrate to all-white areas. Because the Board’s pupil assignments coincided with residential segregation initiated by law in Oklahoma City, the Board also preserved and augmented existing residential segregation.

Thus, by 1972, 11 years after the plaintiffs had filed suit and 18 years after our decision in Brown I, the School Board continued to resist integration and in some respects the Board had worsened the situation. Four years after this Court’s admonition to formerly de jure segregated school districts to come forward with realistic plans for immediate relief, see Green v. New Kent County School Bd.(1968), the Board still had offered no meaningful plan of its own. Instead, “[i]t rationalize[d] its intransigence on the constitutionally unsound basis that public opinion [was] opposed to any further desegregation.” The District Court concluded: “This litigation has been frustratingly interminable, not because of insuperable difficulties of implementation of the commands of the Supreme Court . . . and the Constitution . . . but because of the unpardonable recalcitrance of the . . . Board.” Consequently, the District Court ordered the Board to implement the only available plan that exhibited the promise of achieving actual desegregation — the “Finger Plan” offered by the plaintiffs.

In 1975, after a mere three years of operating under the Finger Plan, the Board filed a “Motion to Close Case,” arguing that it had “‘eliminated all vestiges of state imposed racial discrimination in its school system.'” In 1977, the District Court granted the Board’s motion and issued an “Order Terminating Case.” The court concluded that the Board had “operated the [Finger] Plan properly” and stated that it did not “foresee that the termination of . . . jurisdiction will result in the dismantlement of the [Finger] Plan or any affirmative action by the defendant to undermine the unitary system.” The order ended the District Court’s active supervision of the school district but did not dissolve the injunctive decree. The plaintiffs did not appeal this order.

The Board continued to operate under the Finger Plan until 1985, when it implemented the Student Reassignment Plan (SRP). The SRP superimposed attendance zones over some residentially segregated areas. As a result, considerable racial imbalance reemerged in 33 of 64 elementary schools in the Oklahoma City system with student bodies either greater than 90% Afro-American or greater than 90% non-Afro-American. More specifically, 11 of the schools ranged from 96.9% to 99.7% Afro-American, and approximately 44% of all Afro-American children in grades K–4 were assigned to these virtually all-Afro-American schools.

In response to the SRP, the plaintiffs moved to reopen the case. Ultimately, the District Court dissolved the desegregation decree, finding that the school district had been “unitary” since 1977 and that the racial imbalances under the SRP were the consequence of residential segregation arising from “personal preferences.” The Court of Appeals reversed, finding that the Board had not met its burden to establish that “the condition the [decree] sought to alleviate, a constitutional violation, has been eradicated.”

  1. I agree with the majority that the proper standard for determining whether a school desegregation decree should be dissolved is whether the purposes of the desegregation litigation, as incorporated in the decree, have been fully achieved. I strongly disagree with the majority, however, on what must be shown to demonstrate that a decree’s purposes have been fully realized. In my view, a standard for dissolution of a desegregation decree must take into account the unique harm associated with a system of racially identifiable schools and must expressly demand the elimination of such schools.

II-A. Our pointed focus in Brown I upon the stigmatic injury caused by segregated schools explains our unflagging insistence that formerly de jure segregated school districts extinguish all vestiges of school segregation. The concept of stigma also gives us guidance as to what conditions must be eliminated before a decree can be deemed to have served its purpose. . . .

Just as it is central to the standard for evaluating the formation of a desegregation decree, so should the stigmatic injury associated with segregated schools be central to the standard for dissolving a decree. The Court has indicated that “the ultimate end to be brought about” by a desegregation remedy is “a unitary, nonracial system of public education.” We have suggested that this aim is realized once school officials have “eliminate[d] from the public schools all vestiges of state-imposed segregation,” whether they inhere in the school’s “faculty, staff, transportation, extracurricular activities and facilities,” or even in “the community and administration[‘s] attitudes toward [a] school.” Although the Court has never explicitly defined what constitutes a “vestige” of state-enforced segregation, the function that this concept has performed in our jurisprudence suggests that it extends to any condition that is likely to convey the message of inferiority implicit in a policy of segregation. So long as such conditions persist, the purposes of the decree cannot be deemed to have been achieved.

II-B. The majority suggests a more vague and, I fear, milder standard. Ignoring the harm identified in Brown I, the majority asserts that the District Court should find that the purposes of the decree have been achieved so long as “the Oklahoma City School District [is now] being operated in compliance with the commands of the Equal Protection Clause” and “it [is] unlikely that the school board would return to its former ways.” Insofar as the majority instructs the District Court, on remand, to “conside[r] whether the vestiges of de jure segregation ha[ve] been eliminated as far as practicable,” the majority presumably views elimination of vestiges as part of “operat[ing] in compliance with the commands of the Equal Protection Clause.” But as to the scope or meaning of “vestiges,” the majority says very little.

By focusing heavily on present and future compliance with the Equal Protection Clause, the majority’s standard ignores how the stigmatic harm identified in Brown I can persist even after the State ceases actively to enforce segregation. . . .

III. Applying the standard I have outlined, I would affirm the Court of Appeals’ decision ordering the District Court to restore the desegregation decree. For it is clear on this record that removal of the decree will result in a significant number of racially identifiable schools that could be eliminated.

As I have previously noted, “Racially identifiable schools are one of the primary vestiges of state-imposed segregation which an effective desegregation decree must attempt to eliminate. In Swann [v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education (1971)] for example, we held that “[t]he district judge or school authorities . . . will thus necessarily be concerned with the elimination of one-race schools.” There is “a presumption,” we stated, “against schools that are substantially disproportionate in their racial composition.” And in evaluating the effectiveness of desegregation plans in prior cases, we ourselves have considered the extent to which they discontinued racially identifiable schools. For a principal end of any desegregation remedy is to ensure that it is no longer “possible to identify a ‘white school’ or a ‘Negro school.'” The evil to be remedied in the dismantling of a dual system is the “[r]acial identification of the system’s schools.” The goal is a system without white schools or Negro schools — a system with “just schools.” A school authority’s remedial plan or a district court’s remedial decree is to be judged by its effectiveness in achieving this end. Against the background of former state-sponsorship of one-race schools, the persistence of racially identifiable schools perpetuates the message of racial inferiority associated with segregation. Therefore, such schools must be eliminated whenever feasible. . . .

In its concern to spare local school boards the “Draconian” fate of “indefinite” “judicial tutelage,” the majority risks subordination of the constitutional rights of Afro-American children to the interest of school board autonomy. The courts must consider the value of local control, but that factor primarily relates to the feasibility of a remedial measure, not whether the constitutional violation has been remedied. Swann establishes that if further desegregation is “reasonable, feasible, and workable,” then it must be undertaken. In assessing whether the task is complete, the dispositive question is whether vestiges capable of inflicting stigmatic harm exist in the system and whether all that can practicably be done to eliminate those vestiges has been done. . . .

  1. Consistent with the mandate of Brown I, our cases have imposed on school districts an unconditional duty to eliminate any condition that perpetuates the message of racial inferiority inherent in the policy of state-sponsored segregation. The racial identifiability of a district’s schools is such a condition. Whether this “vestige” of state-sponsored segregation will persist cannot simply be ignored at the point where a district court is contemplating the dissolution of a desegregation decree. In a district with a history of state-sponsored school segregation, racial separation, in my view, remains inherently unequal.

I dissent.

* * *

  1. Justice Marshall writes that “a desegregation decree cannot be lifted so long as conditions likely to inflict the stigmatic injury condemned in Brown I persist.” What exactly is the stigmatic injury condemned in Brown I? Is it state-mandated racial separation in the schools? Or is it racial separation in the schools, even if not mandated by the state? Should there be a constitutional difference between going to a non-integrated versus a segregated school?
  2. Justice Marshall makes the empirical claim that “the persistence of racially identifiable schools perpetuates the message of racial inferiority associated with segregation.” Is he correct?