In K.C. Case,Court CurtailsJudges’ Powers

By Mark Walsh — June 21, 1995 7 min read


In a decision scaling back the Kansas City, Mo., district’s elaborate remedial plan for school desegregation, the U.S. Supreme Court last week placed new limits on federal judges’ powers in such cases.

The High Court ruled 5 to 4 that a federal judge exceeded his powers by requiring a plan designed to attract white suburban students into the Kansas City district through capital and educational improvements. The Court further held that substandard achievement by the district’s black students on national tests was not, by itself, a proper basis for requiring the state of Missouri to continue to pay for costly desegregation programs in the city schools.

“Insistence upon academic goals unrelated to the effects of legal segregation unwarrantably postpones the day when the [Kansas City district] will be able to operate on its own,” Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist wrote for the majority in Missouri v. Jenkins (Case No. 93-1823).

The Court stopped short of requiring a dismantling of the desegregation program, which has cost taxpayers more than $1.4 billion over the last decade. The immediate effect of the June 12 ruling was to reverse a series of lower-court orders requiring the state--in the name of desegregation--to finance special academic programs and pay raises for virtually all school employees in the district.

Associate Justice David H. Souter, in the main dissent, criticized the majority for ruling broadly on the scope of the plan more than six years after the High Court passed up the chance to do that in an earlier appeal.

“The Court’s process of orderly adjudication has broken down in this case,” he wrote.

Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote in a separate dissent: “Given the deep, inglorious history of segregation in Missouri, to curtail desegregation at this time and in this manner is an action at once too swift and too soon.”

An Impatient Court

Legal advocates and desegregation experts disagreed last week about the national implications of the ruling. The Kansas City plan has long been viewed as going far beyond most other desegregation efforts. Several civil-rights advocates argued that despite the decision’s strong tone, it did relatively little to change the law.

“The effects on other school districts may be more atmospheric than real,” said Theodore M. Shaw, an associate director of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, who argued before the High Court on behalf of the black plaintiffs in Kansas City.

A Justice Department official, who did not want to be named, said that the ruling would likely have implications for only about “a half dozen” of the hundreds of pending desegregation cases being handled by the department.

But Mark J. Bredemeier, the general counsel of the Landmark Legal Foundation, a conservative public-interest law organization in Kansas City, said the ruling provides new guidance for districts seeking to get out from under federal-court supervision.

“The Court is beginning to provide a framework to advise litigants that ultimately school districts must be returned to local authorities,” he said. “There is no set amount of money that needs to be spent.”

Christopher A. Hansen, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union who specializes in desegregation, said the ruling shows the Justices’ “impatience with the length of time that school desegregation is going on and their frustration that this era has not come to an end.”

“You can almost hear them tapping their feet,” he said.

The decision was a defeat for a group of black plaintiffs and the Kansas City district, which though nominally a defendant has long been allied with the plaintiffs in seeking to keep the state obligated for most of its desegregation costs, which amount to about $200 million a year.

It was also a defeat for the Clinton Administration, which had argued before the High Court that federal judges should have broader discretion to consider student achievement in evaluating desegregation efforts. (See Education Week, 1/18/95.)

Seeds of Decision

The decision was a big victory, however, for the state of Missouri, which has tried for years to get the High Court to limit the scope of the Kansas City plan.

The case has been overseen since 1977 by U.S. District Judge Russell G. Clark of Kansas City, who in 1984 ruled that the state was jointly liable with the district for the costs of desegregation because of Missouri’s legacy of legally mandated segregation. The remedial plan approved by the judge included massive capital improvements and the establishment of magnet schools designed to lure white students from the suburbs.

The High Court declined in 1989 to review the overall scope of the plan. But the seeds of last week’s ruling were planted in the Court’s 1990 decision about a tax increase imposed by Judge Clark.

The Court ruled 5 to 4 that year that the judge could not raise local property taxes himself, but that he could order the school district to raise the taxes to fulfill the court’s mandate to desegregate.

The four justices who were in the minority in the 1990 ruling joined a dissent that was harshly critical of the cost and scope of the Kansas City plan. The same four dissenters were all in the majority in last week’s ruling: Chief Justice Rehnquist and Associate Justices Anthony M. Kennedy, Sandra Day O’Connor, and Antonin Scalia.

Associate Justice Clarence Thomas, who in 1991 replaced Thurgood Marshall, a stalwart defender of school desegregation, as the Court’s only African-American member, provided the fifth vote last week in favor of scaling back the Kansas City program.

Recalling Detroit Case

Chief Justice Rehnquist’s opinion gave relatively scant attention to the specific rulings by Judge Clark and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit that required the state to pay for special programs and salary increases, although it was those rulings that Missouri had appealed.

Instead, the majority accepted the state’s invitation to examine the overall scope of the Kansas City plan. And the Court held that Judge Clark had exceeded his authority by requiring a plan designed to attract white students from the suburbs into the 37,000-student district, whose enrollment remains about 68 percent black.

The Chief Justice said the plan was, in effect, akin to an interdistrict desegregation plan of the type the Court rejected in a 1974 case, Milliken v. Bradley. In that case, the Court held that suburban Detroit school districts could not be forced to join the city district in a busing plan because they had not been found liable for segregation.

“In effect, the District Court has devised a remedy to accomplish indirectly what it admittedly lacks the remedial authority to mandate directly: the interdistrict transfer of students,” the Chief Justice said in last week’s decision.

He also said that a comparison of student achievement “clearly is not the appropriate test to be applied in deciding whether a previously segregated district” had met its legal mandate.

Multiple Opinions

Justice Thomas wrote a provocative concurrence that expanded on views he had expressed in speeches and writings before he was named to the Supreme Court.

“Given that desegregation has not produced the predicted leaps forward in black educational achievement, there is no reason to think that black students cannot learn as well when surrounded by members of their own race as when they are in an integrated environment,” he wrote.

Justice Souter, joined in dissent by Associate Justices Ginsburg, John Paul Stevens and Stephen G. Breyer, contended that the Kansas City plan did not amount to an interdistrict remedy and that Judge Clark did not exceed his authority by approving salary hikes as part of a desegregation plan.

He stressed that neither Judge Clark nor the Eighth Circuit court has required a specified level of achievement by black students as a condition for releasing the district from supervision.

“Test scores will clearly be relevant in determining whether the improvement programs have cured a deficiency in student achievement to the practicable extent,” Justice Souter wrote.

More Negotiation

The majority opinion was ambiguous about what should happen next in Kansas City. It suggested that Judge Clark reconsid- er his recent rulings in light of the Court’s 1992 ruling in Freeman v. Pitts, which stressed that court supervision of school desegregation was meant to be temporary.

Earlier this year, the parties in the Kansas City case signed an agreement designed to promote more negotiation over the desegregation program, for which numerous annual budgetary decisions must be approved by the federal district court. (See Education Week, 3/1/95.)

John R. Munich, the chief desegregation lawyer in the Missouri attorney general’s office, said the High Court’s ruling “dramatically strengthens the state’s hand in that process.”

But Arthur A. Benson 2nd, the lawyer representing the black plaintiffs in the case, argued that the decision leaves the door open for the lower courts to continue to order many of the same remedies, provided their use can be justified under the Court’s new criteria.

“We have made more progress academically and desegregatively than any other urban district in the nation over the last 10 years,” he said.

A version of this article appeared in the June 21, 1995 edition of Education Week as In K.C. Case,Court CurtailsJudges’ Powers