The Court's Decision in California Case On Limiting the State

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Excerpts from the Court's opinion and the dissent in Crawford v. Board of Education of the City of Los Angeles follow.

Justice Powell delivered the opinion of the Court.

An Amendment to the California Constitution provides that state courts shall not order mandatory pupil assignment or transportation unless a federal court would do so to remedy a violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution. The question for our decision is whether this provision is itself in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment.


This litigation began almost twenty years ago in 1963, when minority students attending school in the Los Angeles Unified School District filed a class action in state court seeking desegregation of the District's schools.[

  • ] The case went to trial some five years later, and in 1970 the trial court issued an opinion finding that the District was substantially segregated in violation of the State and Federal Constitutions. The court ordered the District to prepare a desegregation plan for immediate use. [
  • ]

On the District's appeal, the California Supreme Court affirmed, but on a different basis, Crawford v. Board of Education, 17 Cal, 3d 280, 551 P. 2d 28 (1976). While the trial court had found de jure segregation in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution, [

  • ] the California Supreme Court based its affirmance solely upon the Equal Protection Clause of the State Constitution.[
  • ] The Court explained that under the California Constitution "state school boards ... bear a constitutional obligation to take reasonable steps to alleviate segregation in the public schools, whether the segregation be de facto or de jure in origin." [
  • ] The court remanded to the trial court for preparation of a "reasonably feasible" plan for school desegregation. [
  • ]

On remand, the trial court rejected the District's mostly voluntary desegregation plan but ultimately approved a second plan that included substantial mandatory school reassignment and transportation--"busing"--on a racial and ethnic basis.[

  • ] The plan was put into effect in the fall of 1978, but after one year's experience, all parties to the litigation were dissatisfied. [
  • ] Although the plan continued in operation, the trial court began considering alternatives in October 1979.

In November 1979 the voters of the State of California ratified Proposition I, an amendment to the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses of the State Constitution.[

  • ] Proposition I conforms the power of state courts to order busing to that exercised by the federal courts under the Fourteenth Amendment:

"No court of this state may impose upon the State of California or any public entity, board, or official any obligation or responsibility with repect to the use of pupil school assignment or pupil transportation, (1) except to remedy a specific violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment to the United States Constitution, and (2) unless a federal court would be permitted under federal decisional law to impose that obligation or responsibility upon such party to remedy the specific violation of the Equal Protection Clause. ...[

  • ]

Following approval of Proposition I, the District asked the Superior Court to halt all mandatory reassignment and busing of pupils. [

  • ] On May 19, 1980, the court denied the District's application. The court reasoned that Proposition I was of no effect in this case in light of the court's 1970 finding of de jure segregation by the District in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment. Shortly thereafter, the court ordered implementation of a revised desegregation plan, one that again substantially relied upon mandatory pupil reassignment and transportation.[
  • ]

The California Court of Appeal reversed. [

  • ] The court found that the trial court's 1970 findings of fact would not support the conclusion that the District had violated the Federal Constitution through intentional segregation.[
  • ] Thus, Proposition I was applicable to the trial court's desegregation plan and would bar that part of the plan requiring mandatory student reassignment and transportation. Moreover, the court concluded that Proposition I was constitutional under the Fourteenth Amendment. [
  • ] The court found no obligation on the part of the State to retain a greater remedy at state law against racial segregation than was provided by the Federal Constitution. [
  • ] The court rejected the claim that Proposition I was adopted with a discriminatory purpose. [
  • ]

Determining Proposition I to be applicable and constitutional, the Court of Appeal vacated the orders entered by the Superior Court. The California Supreme Court denied hearing. [

  • ] We granted certiorari. [
  • ]


We agree with the California Court of Appeal in rejecting the contention that once a State chooses to do "more" than the Fourteenth Amendment requires, it may never recede.[

  • ] We reject an interpretation of the Fourteenth Amendment so destructive of a state's democratic processes and of its ability to experiment. This interpretation has no support in the decisions of this court.

Proposition I does not inhibit enforcement of any federal law or constitutional requirement. Quite the contrary, by its plain language the Proposition seeks only to embrace the requirements of the Federal Constitution with respect to mandatory school assignments and transportation. It would be paradoxical to conclude that by adopting the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, the voters of the State thereby had violated it. Moreover, even after Proposition I, the California Constitution still imposes a greater duty of desegregation than does the Federal Constitution. The state courts of California continue to have an obligation under state law to order segregated school districts to use voluntary desegregation techniques, whether or not there has been a finding of intentional segregation. The school districts themselves retain a state law obligation to take reasonably feasible steps to desegregate, and they remain free to adopt reassignment and busing plans to effectuate desegregation.[

  • ]

Nonetheless, petitioners contend that Proposition I is unconstitutional on its face. They argue that Proposition I employs an "explicit racial classification" and imposes a "race-specific" burden on minorities seeking to vindicate state-created rights. By limiting the power of state courts to enforce the state-created right to desegregated schools, petitioners contend, Proposition I created a "dual court system" that discriminated on the basis of race.[

  • ] They emphasize that other state-created rights may be vindicated by the state courts without limitation on remedies. Petitioners argue that the "dual court system" created by Proposition I is unconstitutional unless supported by a compelling state interest.

We would agree that if Proposition I employed a racial classification it would be unconstitutional unless necessary to further a compelling state interest. "A racial classification, regardless of purported motivation is presumptively invalid and can be upheld only upon an extraordinary justification." Personnel Administrator of Massachusetts v. Feeney [

  • ] (1979). [
  • ] But Proposition I does not embody a racial classification.[
  • ] It neither says nor implies that persons are to be treated differently on account of their race. It simply forbids state courts from ordering pupil school assignment or transportation in the absence of a Fourteenth Amendment violation. The benefit it seeks to confer--neighborhood schooling--is made available regardless of race in the discretion of school boards.[
  • ] Indeed, even if Proposition I had a racially discriminatory effect, in view of the demographic mix of the District it is not clear which race or races would be affected the most or in what way.[
  • ] In addition, this Court previously has held that even when a neutral law has a disproportionately adverse effect on a racial minority, the Fourteenth Amendment is violated only if a discriminatory purpose can be shown.[
  • ]

Similarly, the Court has recognized that a distinction may exist between state action that discriminates on the basis of race and state action that addresses, in neutral fashion, race related matters.[

  • ] This distinction is implicit in the Court's repeated statement that the Equal Protection Clause is not violated by the mere repeal of race related legislation or policies that were not required by the Federal Constitution in the first place. In Dayton Bd. of Education v. Brinkman, 433 U.S. 406, 414 (1977), we found that the school board's mere repudiation of an earlier resolution calling for desegregation did not violate the Fourteenth Amendment.[
  • ] In Reitmen v. Mulkey, (1967), and again in Hunter v. Erickson, (1969), we were careful to note that the laws under review did more than "mere[ly] repeal" existing anti-discrimination legislation.[
  • ] In sum, the simple repeal of or modification of desegregation or anti-discrimination laws, without more, never has been viewed as embodying a presumptively invalid racial classification.

Were we to hold that the mere repeal of race related legislation is unconstitutional, we would limit seriously the authority of States to deal with the problems of our heterogeneous population. States would be committed irrevocably to legislation that has proven unsuccessful or even harmful in practice. And certainly the purposes of the Fourteenth Amendment would not be advanced by an interpretation that discouraged the States from providing greater protection to racial minorities. Nor would the purposes of the Amendment be furthered by requiring the States to maintain legislation designed to ameliorate race relations or to protect racial minorities but which has produced just the opposite effects.[

  • ] Yet these would be the results of requiring a State to maintain legislation that has proven unworkable or harmful when the State was under no obligation to adopt the legislation in the first place. Moreover, and relevant to this case, we would not interpret the Fourteenth Amendment to require the people of a State to adhere to a judicial construction of their State Constitution when that Constitution itself vests final authority in the people.


Petitioners seek to avoid the force of the foregoing considerations by arguing that Proposition I is not a "mere repeal." Relying primarily on the decision in Hunter v. Erickson, they contend that Proposition I does not simply repeal a state-created right but fundamentally alters the judicial system so that "those seeking redress from racial isolation in violation of state law must be satisified with less than full relief from a state court."[

  • ] We do not view Hunter as controlling here, nor are we persuaded by petitioners' characterization of Proposition I as something more than a mere repeal.

In Hunter the Akron city charter had been amended by the voters to provide that no ordinance regulating real estate on the basis of race, color, religion, or national origin could take effect until approved by a referendum. As a result of the charter amendment, a fair housing ordinance, adopted by the City Council at an earlier date, was no longer effective. In holding the charter amendment invalid under the Fourteenth Amendment, the Court held that the charter amendment, a fair housing ordinance, adopted by the City Council at an earlier date, was no longer effective. In holding the charter amendment invalid under the Fourteenth Amendment, the Court held that the charter amendment was not a simple repeal of the fair housing ordinance. The amendment "not only suspended the operation of the existing ordinance forbidding housing discrimination, but also required the approval of the electors before any future [anti-discrimination] ordinance could take effect." [

  • ] Thus, whereas most ordinances regulating real property would take effect once enacted by the City Council ordinances prohibiting racial discrimination in housing would be forced to clear an additional hurdle. As such, the charter amendment placed an impermissible, "special burden on racial minorities within the governmental process." [
  • ]

Hunter involved more than a "mere repeal" of the fair housing ordinance; persons seeking anti-discrimination housing laws--presumptively racial minorities--were "singled out for mandatory referendums while no other group ... face[d] that obstacle." [

  • ] By contrast, even on the assumption that racial minorities benefitted from the busing required by state law, Proposition I is less than a "repeal" of the California Equal Protection Clause. As noted above, after Proposition I, the State Constitution still places upon school boards a greater duty to desegregate than does the Fourteenth Amendment.

Nor can it be said that Proposition I distorts the political process for racial reasons or that it allocates governmental or judicial power on the basis of a discriminatory principle. "The Constitution does not require things which are different in fact or opinion to be treated in law as though they were the same." [

  • ] Remedies appropriate in one area of legislation may not be desirable in another. The remedies available for the violation of the antitrust laws, for example, are different than those available for violation of the Civil Rights Acts. Yet a "dual court system"--one for the racial majority and one for the racial minority--is not established simply because civil rights remedies are different from those available in other areas.[
  • ] Surely it was constitutional for the California Supreme Court to caution that although "in some circumstances busing will be an appropriate and useful element in a desegregation plan," in other circumstances "its 'costs,' both in financial and educational terms, will render its use inadvisable." It was equally constitutional for the people of the State to determine that the standard of the Fourteenth Amendment was more appropriate for California courts to apply in desegregation cases than the standard repealed by Proposition I.[
  • ]

In short, having gone beyond the requirements of the Federal Constitution, the State was free to return in part to the standard prevailing generally throughout the United States. It could have conformed its law to the Federal Constitution in every respect. That it chose to pull back only in part, and by preserving a greater right to desegregation than exists under the Federal Constitution, most assuredly does not render the Proposition unconstitutional on its face.


The California Court of Appeal also rejected petitioners' claim that Proposition I, if facially valid, was nonetheless unconstitutional because enacted with a discriminatory purpose. The court reasoned that the purposes of the Proposition were well stated in the Proposition itself.[

  • ] Voters may have been motivated by any of these purposes, chief among them the educational benefits of neighborhood schooling. The Court found that voters also may have considered that the extent of mandatory busing, authorized by state law, actually was aggravating rather than ameliorating the desegregation problem. It characterized petitioners' claim of discriminatory intent on the part of millions of voters as but "pure speculation." [
  • ]

In Reitman v. Mulkey, [

  • ] (1967), the Court considered the constitutionality of another California Proposition. In that case, the California Supreme Court had concluded that the Proposition was unconstitutional because it gave the State's approval to private racial discrimination. This Court agreed, deferring to the findings made by the California court. The Court noted that the California court was "armed ... with the knowledge of the facts and circumstances concerning the passage and potential impact" of the Proposition and "familiar with the milieu in which that provision would operate." Similarly, in this case, again involving the circumstances of passage and the potential impact of a Proposition adopted at a state-wide election, we see no reason to differ with the conclusions of the state appellate court.[
  • ]

Under decisions of this Court, a law neutral on its face still may be unconstitutional if motivated by a discriminatory purpose. In determining whether such a purpose was the motivating factor, the racially disproportionate effect of official action provides "an important starting point." [

  • ]

Proposition I in no way purports to limit the power of state courts to remedy the effects of intentional segregation with its accompanying stigma. The benefits of neighborhood schooling are racially neutral. This manifestly is true in Los Angeles where over 75% of the public school body is composed of groups viewed as racial minorities. Moreover, the Proposition simply removes one means of achieving the state-created right to desegregated education. School districts retain the obligation to alleviate segregation regardless of cause. And the state courts still may order desegregation measures other than pupil school assignment or pupil transportation.[

  • ]

Even if we could assume that Proposition I had a disproportionate adverse effect on racial minorities, we see no reason to challenge the Court of Appeal's conclusion that the voters of the State were not motivated by a discriminatory purpose. In this case the Proposition was approved by an overwhelming majority of the electorate.[

  • ] It received support from members of all races.[
  • ] The purposes of the Proposition are stated in its text and are legitimate, nondiscriminatory objectives. In these circumstances, we will not dispute the judgment of the Court of Appeal or impugn the motives of the State's electorate.

Accordingly the judgment of the California Court of Appeal is


The Court of Appeal also rejected the claim that Proposition I deprived minority children of a "vested right" to desegregated education in violation of due process. [

  • ] Petitioners no longer advance this claim.

In the Los Angeles school district, white students are now the racial minority. Similarly, in Los Angeles County, racial minorities, including those of Spanish origin, constitute the majority of the population.

Of course, if the purpose of repealing legislation is to disadvantage a racial minority, the repeal is unconstitutional for this reason. [

  • ]

The Hunter Court noted that although "the law on its face treats Negro and white, Jew and gentile in an identical manner," 393 U.S., at 39, a charter amendment making it more difficult to pass anti-discrimination legislation could only disadvantage racial minorities in the governmental process.

Vol. 01, Issue 42

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