The Supreme Court Monday let stand a ruling ordering the desegregation of the San Jose public school system, rejecting the district’s claim that the ruling could bring the end of neighborhood schools in many metropolitan areas.
The justices, without comment, refused to disturb a ruling last May by the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco that found that officials had maintained segregated schools intentionally, keeping Latinos and Anglos separate within a 16-mile-long, crescent-shaped district containing more than 31,000 students in California’s fourth-largest city.
Under past Supreme Court rulings, racial imbalance in itself does not violate the Constitution. The court has held that there must also be proof that official actions resulting in imbalance were motivated by the intent to segregate.
During the 14 years that the San Jose case has been in the federal courts, the district has conceded that there was racial imbalance in the schools. At one point, Latinos, with 36% of the student population, made up nearly 79% of the northern part of the district but only 1% of the southern part. The district attributed the imbalance to demographic and residential patterns--along with a neighborhood schools policy that, although neutral in application, resulted in ethnic imbalance.
U.S. District Judge Robert F. Peckham ruled in 1981 that there was insufficient evidence that school board members intended segregation, even though they had foreseen that neighborhood schools would contribute to ethnic imbalance.
But, in an 8-3 decision, the appeals court reversed Peckham’s findings and declared that, “in almost every instance,” the school board chose policies that “turned toward segregation rather than away from it.”
The appeals court said that the district closed old schools and opened new ones in a way that “maintained or intensified” segregation. It called “suspect” the board’s use of busing only to transport students to neighborhood schools--but not to schools across town to achieve desegregation.
‘Sense of Community’
Attorneys for the school district appealed the ruling to the Supreme Court (San Jose School District vs. Diaz, 84-1417). They contended that neighborhood schools provide obvious advantages in transportation, safety, convenience and administration, contributing to a “sense of community” in education.
San Jose never had imposed segregation by law, did not intend segregation and should be permitted to pursue an ethnically neutral neighborhood school policy, the district’s lawyers said. If the appeals court’s ruling were allowed to stand, they said, “it will effectively result in the demise of the traditional neighborhood school system” in the many metropolitan areas across the country faced with de facto racial or ethnic imbalance.
The case now will be returned to federal District Court to determine the steps the district must take to desegregate. Meanwhile, attempts are under way by the district to reach a settlement with attorneys representing a group of Latino parents and students who brought a class-action lawsuit in 1971.
Ramon Cortines, superintendent of the San Jose public schools, said in a telephone interview that the district hopes to expand a voluntary “magnet” school desegregation program already under way, rather than being required to institute a mandatory cross-town busing plan.
“We are committed to a voluntary desegregation solution,” Cortines said.
Can’t Rule Out Busing
Stephen M. Kocio, an attorney for the Latino group, expressed similar hope--but added: “We don’t know if busing will be necessary. We hope it would be possible not to have any involuntary transportation--but we can’t rule out the possibility.”
The costs of implementing a desegregation program are uncertain--depending, for example, on whether a major busing plan is implemented. The district, unable to meet the provisions of a teachers’ union contract, officially declared bankruptcy in the spring of 1983. But classes continued and the district has operated normally since then.
In another case (Glass vs. Louisiana, 84-6030), two justices who have steadfastly opposed capital punishment turned their attack on the way it may be imposed under laws in 14 of the 37 states that permit the death penalty. Justice William J. Brennan Jr., joined by Justice Thurgood Marshall, urged the court to rule on whether electrocution violates constitutional prohibitions against cruel and unusual punishment.
In a detailed dissent to the court’s refusal to hear the case of a condemned murderer from Louisiana, Brennan described the “pain and indignities” suffered during electrocutions--how a prisoner “cringes, leaps and fights the straps with amazing strength” when the switch is pulled. “Sometimes, the prisoner catches on fire, particularly if he perspires heavily,” the justice noted.
‘More Humane’ Executions
Brennan urged consideration of other means of execution--such as lethal gas and fast-acting barbiturates--to ensure that executions are carried out “in a surer, swifter, less violent and more humane manner.” California executions are in a gas chamber.
In other action, the justices agreed to review next term a federal District Court ruling that invalidated a state legislative redistricting plan in North Carolina on the ground that it illegally “diluted” the voting power of blacks. The Reagan Administration had urged the justices to review the case (Thornburg vs. Gingles, 83-1968), saying that the District Court had incorrectly insisted on creating “safe” seats for black candidates.