Excerpts from Supreme Court’s Ruling in Oklahoma City v. Dowell

January 23, 1991 10 min read
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Rehnquist’s Majority Opinion

The following are excerpts from the U.S. Supreme Court’s majority and dissenting opinions in Board of Education of Oklahoma City v. Dowell.

Chief Justice Rehnquist delivered the opinion of the Court.

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. Under that interpretation of the word, a unitary school district is one that has met the mandate of Brown v. Board of Education (1955) and Green v. New Kent County School Board (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 court imposed desegregation plan. 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 (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 and Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Bd. of Education (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.”

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 14th Amendment is that "[n]o State shall ... deny to any person ... the equal protection of the laws.” Courts have used the L terms “dual” to denote a school sys tem which has engaged in intention al 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 L more precisely, or to create subclasses within them. But there is no doubt that the differences in usage described above do exist. The Dis trict 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 termi nate the Oklahoma City school liti gation. In Pasadena City Bd. of Edu cation v. Spangler (1976), we held that a school board is entitled to a rather precise statement of its obliH gations under a desegregation de cree. If such a decree is to be termi nated 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. (1932) for the proposition that a desegrega tion decree could not be lifted or modi fied absent a showing of “grievous L wrong evoked by new and unforeseen conditions.” It also held that “compli ance alone cannot become the basis for modifying or dissolving an injunc tion,” relying on United States v. W.T. Grant Co. (1953). We hold that its re liance was mistaken.

In Swift, several large meat-pack> ing companies entered into a con sent decree whereby they agreed to refrain forever from entering into L the grocery business. The decree L was by its terms effective in perpetu ity. The defendant meat-packers and their allies had over a period of a decade attempted, often with sucL cess in the lower courts, to frustrate operation of the decree. It was in this context that the language relied on by the Court of Appeals in this case was used.


United States v. United Shoe Ma chinery Corp. (1968) explained that the language used in Swift must be read in the context of the continuing danger of unlawful restraints on ade which the Court had found L still existed. “Swift teaches ... a de cree may be changed upon an appro priate showing, and it holds that it may not be changed ... if the pur poses of the litigation as incorporat ed in the decree ... have not been fully achieved.” Ibid. In the present case, a finding by the District Court that the Oklahoma City School Dis trict was being operated in compli ance with the commands of the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment, and that it was unlike ly that the school board would re turn to its former ways, would be a finding that the purposes of the de segregation 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) (1977), we said: "[F]ederal-court decrees must irectly 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 super vision of local school systems was in tended 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 dis crimination” in holding that the im plementation of desegregation was to proceed “with all deliberate peed” (emphasis added). Green also spoke of the “transition to a unitary, nonracial system of public education” (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. 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.” Spangler v. Pasadena City Bd. of Education (Kennedy, J., concur ring). 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. 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 injunctive decrees, nor the commands of the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment, require any such Draconian result. Petitioners urge that we reinstate the decision of the District Court ter minating 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 consti tutional compliance as of 1985, when the S.R.P. [student reassignH ment plan] was adopted, to allow the injunction to be dissolved. The Dis trict Court should address itself to whether the Board had complied in good faith with the desegregation L decree since it was entered, and L whether the vestiges of past disL crimination had been eliminated to the extent practicable.

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, L staff, transportation, extracurricular activities and facilities.” Green.

After the District Court decides whether the Board was entitled to have the decree terminated, it L, should proceed to decide respondent’s challenge to the S.R.P. A L school district which has been re leased from an injunction imposing a desegregation plan no longer re quires court authorization for the L promulgation of policies and rules regulating matters such as assign ment of students and the like, but it of course remains subject to the L mandate of the Equal Protection L Clause of the 14th 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 S.R.P. under appropriate equal protection principles.

The judgment of the Court of Ap peals is reversed, and the case is re manded to the District Court for fur ther proceedings consistent with this opinion.

It is so ordered.

The Court of Appeals viewed the Board’s adop tion of the S.R.P. as a violation of its obligation un der 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 ap peal from an order that by hindsight was ambigu ous, we do not think that the Board should be penal ized for relying on the express language of that order. The District Court in its decision on remand should not treat the adoption of the S.R.P. as a breach of good faith on the part of the Board.

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 consid eration of the case.

A version of this article appeared in the January 23, 1991 edition of Education Week as Excerpts from Supreme Court’s Ruling in Oklahoma City v. Dowell


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