U.S. Supreme Court Turns Down Appeal in Desegregation Case

By Mark Walsh — January 28, 1998 2 min read

The U.S. Supreme Court declined last week to step back into the long-running legal battle over the desegregation of Mississippi’s higher education system.

The justices on Jan. 20 rejected without comment an appeal from a group of black Mississippians who disagree with some of the remedies fashioned by lower courts for desegregating the state’s formerly separate all-white and all-black college systems.

The Supreme Court ruled in favor of the black plaintiffs at an earlier stage in the case. In their 1992 ruling in U.S. v. Fordice, the justices held that states must do more than simply declare that their formerly dual higher education systems were open to students of any race.

The high court sent the case back to lower federal courts to devise remedies for desegregating Mississippi’s five formerly all-white colleges and universities and its three historically black institutions. (“Court Sets New Test for Judging Desegregation Efforts,” Aug. 5, 1992.)

One central issue in the ongoing case has been admissions standards for the state’s higher education institutions. A federal district judge issued a remedial decree in 1995 that accepted admissions criteria proposed by the state board of higher education.

The new criteria for the first time standardized requirements at all eight state colleges and universities.

Previously, admissions standards were lower at the historically black institutions.

The district judge acknowledged that the new standards were likely to reduce from 68 percent to 53 percent the proportion of black high school students who, based on the ACT college-entrance exam, would qualify for admission to at least one state institution.

More Harm Than Good?

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit last year largely affirmed the remedial decree, although it sent the case back to the district court to analyze the effects of the new admissions standards.

The black plaintiffs asked the Supreme Court to intervene. “There is the potential for ‘a remedy’ which actually reduces the level of access of the victimized class to a university-level education,” argued the appeal in Ayers v. Fordice (Case No. 97-6811).

The Department of Justice, which has been on the black plaintiffs’ side throughout the 23-year-old case, filed a brief that said the admissions remedy approved by the lower courts “will have serious, adverse consequences for the educational opportunities of African-American students in Mississippi.”

But the department said the high court should not hear the black plaintiffs’ appeal at this time. The federal district court should be given the chance to clarify its orders on some issues, the department said.

“It may ultimately be necessary for this court to review the remedy,” the Justice Department told the justices in its brief.

Tenure Denial

In other action last week, the high court rejected without comment the appeal of a Vassar College professor who claimed she was denied tenure because of an eight-year leave of absence she took from the college’s biology department so she could raise her children.

A coalition of women’s civil rights groups said in a friend-of-the-court brief that the case presented an important issue regarding the proof of discrimination necessary to win a claim under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the main federal anti-discrimination law.

The appeal was Fisher v. Vassar College (No. 97-404).