Excerpts From the Supreme Court’s Decision in Missouri v. Jenkins

April 25, 1990 20 min read

The following are excerpts from the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Missouri v. Jenkins.

Justice White delivered the opinion of the Court.

The United States District Court for the Western District of Missouri imposed an increase in the property taxes levied by the Kansas City, Mo., School District (KCMSD) to ensure funding for the desegregation of KCMSD’s public schools. We granted certiorari to consider the State of Missouri’s argument that the District Court lacked the power to raise local property taxes. For the reasons given below, we hold that the District Court abused its discretion in imposing the tax increase. We also hold, however, that the modifications of the District Court’s order made by the Court of Appeals do satisfy equitable and constitutional principles governing the District Court’s power. ...


We turn to the tax increase imposed by the District Court. The State urges us to hold that the tax increase violated Article III, the 10th Amendment, and principles of federal/state comity. We find it unnecessary to reach the difficult constitutional issues, for we agree with the State that the tax increase contravened the principles of comity that must govern the exercise of the District Court’s equitable discretion in this area.

It is accepted by all the parties, as it was by the courts below, that the imposition of a tax increase by a federal court was an extraordinary event. In assuming for itself the fundamental and delicate power of taxation the District Court not only intruded on local authority but circumvented it altogether. Before taking such a drastic step the District Court was obliged to assure itself that no permissible alternative would have accomplished the required task. We have emphasized that although the “remedial powers of an equity court must be adequate to the task ... they are not unlimited,” and one of the most important considerations governing the exercise of equitable power is a proper respect for the integrity and function of local government institutions. Especially is this true where, as here, those institutions are ready, willing, and--but for the operation of state law curtailing their powers--able to remedy the deprivation of constitutional rights themselves.

The District Court believed that it had no alternative to imposing a tax increase. But there was an alternative, the very one outlined by the Court of Appeals: it could have authorized or required KCMSD to levy property taxes at a rate adequate to fund the desegregation remedy and could have enjoined the operation of state laws that would have prevented KCMSD from exercising this power. The difference between the two approaches is far more than a matter of form. Authorizing and directing local government institutions to devise and implement remedies not only protects the function of those institutions but, to the extent possible, also places the responsibility for solutions to the problems of segregation upon those who have themselves created the problems.

As Brown v. Board of Education observed, local authorities have the ''primary responsibility for elucidating, assessing, and solving” the problems of desegregation. This is true as well of the problems of financing desegregation, for no matter has been more consistently placed upon the shoulders of local government than that of financing public schools. As was said in another context, "[t]he very complexity of the problems of financing and managing a ... public school system suggests that ‘there will be more than one constitutionally permissible method of solving them,’ and that ... ‘the legislature’s efforts to tackle the problems’ should be entitled to respect.” By no means should a district court grant local government carte blanche, but local officials should at least have the opportunity to devise their own solutions to these problems.

The District Court therefore abused its discretion in imposing the tax itself. The Court of Appeals should not have allowed the tax increase to stand and should have reversed the District Court in this respect.


We stand on different ground when we review the modifications to the District Court’s order made by the Court of Appeals. [T]he Court of Appeals held that the District Court in the future should authorize KCMSD to submit a levy to the state tax collection authorities to fund its budget and should enjoin the operation of state laws that would limit or reduce the levy below that amount.

The State argues that the funding ordered by the District Court violates principles of equity and comity because the remedial order itself was excessive. As the State puts it, "[t]he only reason that the court below needed to consider an unprecedented tax increase was the equally unprecedented cost of its àremedial programs.” We think this argument aims at the scope of the remedy rather than the manner in which the remedy is to be funded and thus falls outside our limited grant of certiorari in this case. As we denied certiorari on the first question presented by the State’s petition, which did challenge the scope of the remedial order, we must resist the State’s efforts to argue that point now. We accept, without approving or disapproving, the Court of Appeals’ conclusion that the District Court’s remedy was proper.

The State has argued here that the District Court, having found the State and KCMSD jointly and severally liable, should have allowed any monetary obligations that KCMSD could not meet to fall on the State rather than interfere with state law to permit KCMSD to meet them. Under the circumstances of this case, we cannot say it was an abuse of discretion for the District Court to rule that KCMSD should be responsible for funding its share of the remedy. The State strenuously opposed efforts by respondents to make it responsible for the cost of implementing the order and had secured a reversal of the District Court’s earlier decision placing on it all of the cost of substantial portions of the order. The District Court declined to require the State to pay for KCMSD’s obligations because it believed that the Court of Appeals had ordered it to allocate the costs between the two governmental entities. Furthermore, if the District Court had chosen the route now suggested by the State, implementation of the remedial order might have been delayed if the State resisted efforts by KCMSD to obtain contribution.

It is true that in Milliken v. Bradley, we stated that the enforcement of a money judgment against the State did not violate principles of federalism because "[t]he District Court ... neither attempted to restructure local governmental entities nor ... mandat[ed] a particular method or structure of state or local financing.” But we did not there state that a District Court could never set aside state laws preventing local governments from raising funds sufficient to satisfy their constitutional obligations just because those funds could also be obtained from the State. To the contrary, 42 U.S.C. 1983 (1982 ed.), on which respondents’ complaint is based, is authority enough to require each tortfeasor to pay its share of the cost of the remedy if it can, and apportionment of the cost is part of the equitable power of the District Court.

We turn to the constitutional issues. The modifications ordered by the Court of Appeals cannot be assailed as invalid under the 10th Amendment. “The 10th Amendment’s reservation of nondelegated powers to the States is not implicated by a federal-court judgment enforcing the express prohibitions of unlawful state conduct enacted by the 14th Amendment.” “The 14th Amendment ... was avowedly directed against the power of the States,” and so permits a federal court to disestablish local government institutions that interfere with its commands.

Finally, the State argues that an order to increase taxes cannot be sustained under the judicial power of Article III. Whatever the merits of this argument when applied to the District Court’s own order increasing taxes, a point we have not reached, a court order directing a local government body to levy its own taxes is plainly a judicial act within the power of a federal court. We held as much in Griffin v. Prince Edward County School Bd, where we stated that a District Court, faced with a county’s attempt to avoid desegregation of the public schools by refusing to operate those schools, could “require the [County] Supervisors to exercise the power that is theirs to levy taxes to raise funds adequate to reopen, operate, and maintain without racial discrimination a public school system ...” Griffin followed a long and venerable line of cases in which this Court held that federal courts could issue the writ of mandamus to compel local governmental bodies to levy taxes adequate to satisfy their debt obligations.

The State maintains, however, that even under these cases, the federal judicial power can go no further than to require local governments to levy taxes as authorized under state law. In other words, the State argues that federal courts cannot set aside state-imposed limitations on local taxing authority because to do so is to do more than to require the local government “to exercise the power that is theirs.” We disagree.

It is clear that a local government with taxing authority may be ordered to levy taxes in excess of the limit set by state statute where there is reason based in the Constitution for not observing the statutory limitation. Here the KCMSD may be ordered to levy taxes despite the statutory limitations on its authority in order to compel the discharge of an obligation imposed on KCMSD by the 14th Amendment. To hold otherwise would fail to take account of the obligations of local governments, under the Supremacy Clause, to fulfill the requirements that the Constitution imposes on them. However wide the discretion of local authorities in fashioning desegregation remedies may be, “if a state-imposed limitation on a school authority’s discretion operates to inhibit or obstruct the operation of a unitary school system or impede the disestablishing of a dual school system, it must fall; state policy must give way when it operates to hinder vindication of federal constitutional guarantees.” Even though a particular remedy may not be required in every case to vindicate constitutional guarantees, where (as here) it has been found that a particular remedy is required, the State cannot hinder the process by preventing a local government from implementing that remedy.

Accordingly, the judgment of the Court of Appeals is affirmed insofar as it required the District Court to modify its funding order and reversed insofar as it allowed the tax increase imposed by the District Court to stand. The case is remanded for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

It is so ordered.

Justice Kennedy, with whom The Chief Justice, Justice O’Connor, and Justice Scalia join, concurring in part and concurring in the judgment.

In agreement with the Court that we have jurisdiction to decide this case, I join Part II of the opinion. I agree also that the District Court exceeded its authority by attempting to impose a tax. The Court is unanimous in its holding, that the Court of Appeals’ judgment affirming “the actions that the [district] court has taken to this point,” must be reversed. This is consistent with our precedents and the basic principles defining judicial power.

In my view, however, the Court transgresses these same principles when it goes further, much further, to embrace by broad dictum an expansion of power in the federal judiciary beyond all precedent. Today’s casual embrace of taxation imposed by the unelected, life-tenured federal judiciary disregards fundamental precepts for the democratic control of public institutions. I cannot acquiesce in the majority’s statements of this point, and should there arise an actual dispute over the collection of taxes as here contemplated in a case that is not, like this one, premature, we should not confirm the outcome of premises adopted with so little constitutional justification. The Court’s statements, in my view, cannot be seen as necessary for its judgment, or as precedent for the future, and I cannot join Parts III and IV of the Court’s opinion.


Some essential litigation history is necessary for a full understanding of what is at stake here and what will be wrought if the implications of all the Court’s statements are followed to the full extent. ...

By the time of the order at issue here, the District Court’s remedies included some "$260 million in capital improvements and a magnet-school plan costing over $200 million.” And the remedial orders grew more expensive as shortfalls in revenue became more severe. As the Eighth Circuit judges dissenting from denial of rehearing en banc put it: “The remedies ordered go far beyond anything previously seen in a school desegregation case. The sheer immensity of the programs encompassed by the district court’s order--the large number of magnet schools and the quantity of capital renovations and new construction--are concededly without parallel in any other school district in the country.”

The judicial taxation approved by the Eighth Circuit is also without parallel. ...

The case before us represents the first in which a lower federal court has in fact upheld taxation to fund a remedial decree. ...

The premise of the Court’s analysis, I submit, is infirm. Any purported distinction between direct imposition of a tax by the federal court and an order commanding the school district to impose the tax is but a convenient formalism where the court’s action is predicated on elimination of state law limitations on the school district’s taxing authority. As the Court describes it, the local KCMSD possesses plenary taxing powers, which allow it to impose any tax it chooses if not “hinder[ed]” by the Missouri Constitution and state statutes. This puts the conclusion before the premise. Local government bodies in Missouri, as elsewhere, must derive their power from a sovereign, and that sovereign is the State of Missouri. ...

For this reason, I reject the artificial suggestion that the District Court may by “prevent[ing] ... officials from applying state law that would interfere with the willing levy of property taxes by KCMSD,” cause the KCMSD to exercise power under state law. State laws, including taxation provisions legitimate and constitutional in themselves, define the power of the KCMSD. Absent a change in state law, no increase in property taxes could take place in the KCMSD without a federal court order. It makes no difference that the KCMSD stands “ready, willing, and ... able” to impose a tax not authorized by state law. Whatever taxing power the KCMSD may exercise outside the boundaries of state law would derive from the federal court. The Court never confronts the judicial authority to issue an order for this purpose. Absent a change in state law, the tax is imposed by federal authority under a federal decree. The question is whether a district court possesses a power to tax under federal law, either directly or through delegation to the KCMSD.


Article III of the Constitution states that "[t]he judicial Power of the United States, shall be vested in one supreme Court, and in such inferior Courts as the Congress may from time to time ordain and establish.” The description of the judicial power nowhere includes the word “tax” or anything that resembles it. This reflects the Framers’ understanding that taxation was not a proper area for judicial involvement. ...

Our cases throughout the years leave no doubt that taxation is not a judicial function. ...

The nature of the District Court’s order here reveals that it is not a proper exercise of the judicial power. The exercise of judicial power involves adjudication of controversies and imposition of burdens on those who are parties before the Court. The order at issue here is not of this character. It binds the broad class of all KCMSD taxpayers. It has the purpose and direct effect of extracting money from persons who have had no presence or representation in the suit. For this reason, the District Court’s direct order imposing a tax was more than an abuse of discretion, for any attempt to collect the taxes from the citizens would have been a blatant denial of due process. ...

The power of taxation is one that the federal judiciary does not possess. In our system “the legislative department alone has access to the pockets of the people,” for it is the legislature that is accountable to them and represents their will. ... It is not surprising that imposition of taxes by an authority so insulated from public communication or control can lead to deep feelings of frustration, powerlessness, and anger on the part of taxpaying citizens. ...

At bottom, today’s discussion seems motivated by the fear that failure to endorse judicial taxation power might in some extreme circumstance leave a court unable to remedy a constitutional violation. As I discuss below, I do not think this possibility is in reality a significant one. More important, this possibility is nothing more or less than the necessary consequence of any limit on judicial power. If, however, judicial discretion is to provide the sole limit on judicial remedies, that discretion must counsel restraint. Ill-considered entry into the volatile field of taxation is a step that may place at risk the legitimacy that justifies judicial independence.


One of the most troubling aspects of the Court’s opinion is that discussion of the important constitutional issues of judicial authority to tax need never have been undertaken to decide this case. Even were I willing to accept the Court’s proposition that a federal court might in some extreme case authorize taxation, this case is not the one. The suggestion that failure to approve judicial taxation here would leave constitutional rights unvindicated rests on a presumption that the District Court’s remedy is the only possible cure for the constitutional violations it found. Neither our precedents nor the record support this view. In fact, the taxation power is sought here on behalf of a remedial order unlike any before seen.

It cannot be contended that interdistrict comparability, which was the ultimate goal of the District Court’s orders, is itself a constitutional command. We have long since determined that “unequal expenditures between children who happen to reside in different districts” do not violate the Equal Protection Clause. The District Court in this case found, and the Court of Appeals affirmed, that there was no interdistrict constitutional violation that would support mandatory interdistrict relief. Instead, the District Court’s conclusion that desegregation might be easier if more nonminority students could be attracted into the KCMSD was used as the hook on which to hang numerous policy choices about improving the quality of education in general within the KCMSD. The State’s complaint that this suit represents the attempt of a school district that could not obtain public support for increased spending to enlist the District Court to finance its educational policy cannot be dismissed out of hand. The plaintiffs and KCMSD might well be seen as parties that have “joined forces apparently for the purpose of extracting funds from the state treasury.”

This Court has never approved a remedy of the type adopted by the District Court. There are strong arguments against the validity of such a plan. A remedy that uses the quality of education as a lure to attract nonminority students will place the District Court at the center of controversies over educational philosophy that by tradition are left to this Nation’s communities. Such a plan as a practical matter raises many of the concerns involved in interdistrict desegregation remedies. District Courts can and must take needed steps to eliminate racial discrimination and ensure the operation of unitary school systems. But it is discrimination, not the ineptitude of educators or the indifference of the public, that is the evil to be remedied. An initial finding of discrimination cannot be used as the basis for a wholesale shift of authority over day-to-day school operations from parents, teachers, and elected officials to an unaccountable district judge whose province is law, not education.

Perhaps it is good educational policy to provide a school district with the items included in the KCMSD capital improvement plan, for example: high schools in which every classroom will have air conditioning, an alarm system, and 15 microcomputers; a 2,000-square-foot planetarium; greenhouses and vivariums; a 25-acre farm with an air-conditioned meeting room for 104 people; a Model United Nations wired for language translation; broadcast capable radio and television studios with an editing and animation lab; a temperature controlled art gallery; movie editing and screening rooms; a 3,500-square-foot dust-free diesel mechanics room; 1,875-square-foot elementary school animal rooms for use in a Zoo Project; swimming pools; and numerous other facilities. But these items are a part of legitimate political debate over educational policy and spending priorities, not the Constitution’s command of racial equality. Indeed, it may be that a mere 12-acre petting farm, or other corresponding reductions in court-ordered spending, might satisfy constitutional requirements, while preserving scarce public funds for legislative allocation to other public needs, such as paving streets, feeding the poor, building prisons, or housing the homeless. Perhaps the KCMSD’s Classical Greek theme schools emphasizing forensics and self-government will provide exemplary training in participatory democracy. But if today’s dicta become law, such lessons will be of little use to students who grow up to become taxpayers in the KCMSD. ...

Any argument that the remedy chosen by the District Court was the only one possible is in fact unsupportable in light of our previous cases. ... To suggest that a constitutional violation will go unremedied if a district does not, through capital improvements or other means, turn every school into a magnet school, and the entire district into a magnet district, is to suggest that the remedies approved in our past cases should have been disapproved as insufficient to deal with the violations. The truth of the matter is that the remedies in those cases were permissible choices among the many that might be adopted by a district court. ...


This case is a stark illustration of the ever-present question whether ends justify means. Few ends are more important than enforcing the guarantee of equal educational opportunity for our Nation’s children. But rules of taxation that override state political structures not themselves subject to any constitutional infirmity raise serious questions of federal authority, questions compounded by the odd posture of a case in which the Court assumes the validity of a novel conception of desegregation remedies we never before have approved. The historical record of voluntary compliance with the decree of Brown v. Board of Education is not a proud chapter in our constitutional history, and the judges of the District Courts and Courts of Appeals have been courageous and skillful in implementing its mandate. But courage and skill must be exercised with due regard for the proper and historic role of the courts.

I do not acknowledge the troubling departures in today’s majority opinion as either necessary or appropriate to ensure full compliance with the Equal Protection Clause and its mandate to eliminate the cause and effects of racial discrimination in the schools. ... This assertion of judicial power in one of the most sensitive of policy areas, that involving taxation, begins a process that over time could threaten fundamental alteration of the form of government our Constitution embodies.

James Madison observed: “Justice is the end of government. It is the end of civil society. It ever has been, and ever will be pursued, until it be obtained, or until liberty be lost in the pursuit.” In pursuing the demand of justice for racial equality, I fear that the Court today loses sight of other basic political liberties guaranteed by our constitutional system, liberties that can coexist with a proper exercise of judicial remedial powers adequate to correct constitutional violations.

A version of this article appeared in the April 25, 1990 edition of Education Week as Excerpts From the Supreme Court’s Decision in Missouri v. Jenkins