Court Reaffirms Its Decision In Key Desegregation Case
A bitterly divided federal appeals panel has released its final opinion in the Oklahoma City school-desegregation case, reaffirming that the district must adhere to a 1972 desegregation decree and dismantle a neighborhood-school plan that violates that order.
Many civil-rights experts predict that the case will become the vehicle for a U.S. Supreme Court ruling on how and when school-desegregation cases may be ended.
The importance of the case has been highlighted by the unusual procedural moves taken by the panel to allow both the two-member majority and a dissenting judge to clarify their views in the case.
New language in the majority's 54-page opinion restates its position that the case is "not so much as one dealing with desegregation, but ... one dealing with the proper application of federal law on injunctive remedies."
Under that standard, desegregation orders must remain in place until the district can prove the decrees are causing "grievous wrong evoked by new and unforeseen conditions," it held. "Thus, compliance alone cannot become the basis for modifying or dissolving an injunction."
To buttress its view, the majority cited the Supreme Court's ruling in Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenberg Board of Education, in which the Court held that "a school-desegregation case does not differ fundamentally from other cases involving the framing of equitable remedies to repair the denial of a constitutional right."
Original Ruling Withdrawn
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit withdrew its original opinion in September when one of its members, Judge Henry Baldock, issued a delayed dissent attacking the majority's reasoning.
"The dissent miscasts our basic premise," the majority said in its revised opinion. "We do not imply perpetual supervision of public schools by federal courts, nor do we suggest that the board is incapable of complying with constitutional mandates."
Judge Baldock, in his revised dissent, calls the majority's new language "pure sophistry."
"The school district will operate under a court-imposed decree," he wrote, and "the district court will never cease active supervision.''
The revised ruling is the latest in a long series that have resulted from a challenge by black plaintiffs to the district's 1985 decision to end mandatory busing for students in kindergarten through 4th grade.
The board argued that demographic changes in the district had increased the burden of a 1972 busing plan on black students and interfered with the district's ability to provide those students with a high-quality education.
The board also argued that it was free to amend the plan because in 1977 it had been ruled "unitary," or in substantial compliance with the desegregation order.
A lower court has twice upheld the district's position, but both of its rulings were reversed by the 10th Circuit Court.
The latest ruling resolves procedural complications that civil-rights experts speculated had dissuaded the Supreme Court from hearing the case in 1986.