Thirty-six years after ordering the dismantling of segregated schools, the Supreme Court announced Tuesday that it is time for judges to return full control of schools to local officials, even if that results in “primarily one-race schools.”
Court-ordered school desegregation was intended only “as a temporary measure,” Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist said. The Constitution’s demand for the equal treatment of black children does not require the “Draconian result” that judges control schools “in perpetuity,” he said.
Rehnquist, a longtime foe of court-ordered busing, used an Oklahoma City case to set down new rules making it easier for school districts to abandon desegregation plans.
If a school board “has complied in good faith” with a desegregation order and has “eliminated to the extent practicable” the impact of past discrimination, a judge should drop the decree, Rehnquist said.
The school board may then return to a neighborhood school plan, Rehnquist said, regardless of whether the action results in minority students being concentrated in all-minority schools.
School attorneys portrayed Tuesday’s decision as the high court’s most important ruling on school desegregation in 20 years.
In 1971, the justices used a North Carolina case to set standards for judges to remedy illegal segregation. That ruling, in Swann vs. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education, resulted in cross-town busing orders across the nation.
About 800 school districts, mostly in the South and Midwest, are still under federal court decrees, according to the Justice Department and civil rights lawyers. Desegregation is carried out by various means, including busing and the use of magnet schools to attract white students to minority neighborhoods.
In the Oklahoma City case, the justices set out to answer the key unanswered question: Does a school desegregation case ever come to an end?
Rehnquist’s opinion, for the 5-3 majority, stressed that court-ordered desegregation must give way to “local control over the education of children.” But his opinion did not set precise standards for deciding when a school board has fully complied with an order.
Civil rights attorneys said they were troubled but not surprised by the ruling. They said they feared that it could spur scores of school districts to seek an end to desegregation plans.
The high court has three other pending appeals from school boards seeking relief from a court order. One of them is from the Topeka, Kan., school district, the subject of the landmark Brown vs. Board of Education ruling that declared school segregation unconstitutional in 1954.
Lawyers for the school boards predicted that Rehnquist’s opinion would have a broad impact.
“This is a major case and a wonderful decision,” said Charles J. Cooper, a former Reagan Administration attorney who assisted the Oklahoma City school board in its appeal. “It says once you have good faith compliance for a reasonable period of time, you can get out from under a court order,” he said.
Cooper noted that most school districts have been under a court order for at least a decade and should be able to prove that they have fully complied with the original desegregation decree.
“School board members will be happy to hear that these court orders don’t go on forever,” said Gwendolyn H. Gregory, an attorney for the National School Boards Assn. “But there is a lot that’s still uncertain here and will require more litigation.”
The Oklahoma City school district has been litigating the desegregation issue for 30 years.
In 1961, black parents filed suit contending the schools were illegally segregated. A judge agreed and ordered the school district to desegregate. In 1972, after the Supreme Court’s Swann decision, the judge ordered further steps, including cross-town busing.
The court-ordered busing continued for 13 years. In 1985, the school board, with the judge’s permission, ended busing in the elementary grades and returned to a neighborhood school plan.
Because 11 schools became nearly all-black again, lawyers for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund took the case back to court.
In response, a federal appeals court in Denver ruled that the judge erred by ending the busing plan. The school district has “an affirmative duty” to maintain desegregation, the appeals court said.
On a 5-3 vote, the Supreme Court reversed that decision Tuesday and sent the case back for reconsideration. Rehnquist’s opinion in the case (Board of Education vs. Dowell, 89-1080) was joined by Justices Byron R. White, Sandra Day O’Connor, Antonin Scalia and Anthony M. Kennedy.
Tuesday’s ruling covers only those school districts that have been found guilty of segregation in a federal court.
The Los Angeles school district was found guilty of violating the California Constitution and ordered to bus students for desegregation in the 1970s. But, when voters amended the state Constitution to bring it into line with the U.S. Constitution, the desegregation order ended.