The Text of the U.S. Supreme Court's Decision In The Seattle

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On June 30, 1982, the U.S. Supreme Court decided two cases involving the authority of states to limit school desegregation.

The first of these, Washington v. Seattle School District No. 1, concerned a statewide initiative that barred local school districts from adopting busing plans unless ordered to do so by a federal court.

In the excerpts that follow, single asterisks in brackets, [

  • ], denote footnotes that have been omitted; double asterisks, [
  • ], denote legal citations omitted. Remaining footnotes appear at the end of each opinion.

The issue here, after all, is not whether Washingtonhas the authority to intervene in the affairsof local school boards; it is, rather, whetherthe State has exercised that authority in a mannerconsistent with the Equal Protection Clause.

Justice Blackmun delivered the opinion of the Court.

We are presented here with an extraordinary question: whether an elected local school board may use the Fourteenth Amendment to defend its program of busing for integration from attack by the State.

I (A)

Seattle School District No. 1, (District), which is largely coterminous with the city of Seattle, Wash., is charged by state law with administering 112 schools and educating approximately 54,000 public school students. About 37% of these children are of Negro, Asian, American Indian, or Hispanic ancestry. Because segregated housing patterns in Seattle have created racially imbalanced schools, the District historically has taken steps to alleviate the isolation of minority students; since 1963, it has permitted students to transfer from their neighborhood schools to help cure the District's racial imbalance.[

  • ]

Despite these efforts, the District in 1977 came under increasing pressure to accelerate its program of desegregation.[

  • ] In response, the District's Board of Directors (School Board) enacted a resolution defining "racial imbalance" as "the situation that exists when the combined minority student enrollment in a school exceeds the districtwide combined average by 20 percentage points, provided that the single minority enrollment ... of no school will exceed 50 percent of the student body." The District resolved to eliminate all such imbalance from the Seattle public schools by the beginning of the 1979-1980 academic year.[
  • ]

In September 1977, the District implemented a "magnet" program, designed to alleviate racial isolation by enhancing educational offerings at certain schools, thereby encouraging voluntary student transfers. A "disproportionate amount of the overall movement" inspired by the program was undertaken by Negro students, however, [

  • ] and racial imbalance in the Seattle schools was found to have actually increased between the 1970-1971 and 1977-1978 academic years. The District therefore concluded that mandatory reassignment of students was necessary if racial isolation in its schools was to be eliminated. Accordingly, in March 1978, the School Board enacted the so-called "Seattle Plan" for desegregation. The plan, which makes extensive use of busing and mandatory reassignments, desegregates elementary schools by "pairing" and "triading" predominantly minority with predominantly white attendance areas, and by basing student assignments on attendance zones rather than on race. The racial makeup of secondary schools is moderated by "feeding" them from the desegregated elementary schools. [
  • ] The District represents that the plan results in the reassignment of roughly equal numbers of white and minority students, and allows most students to spend roughly half of their academic careers attending a school near their homes. [
  • ]

The desegregation program, implemented in the 1978-1979 academic year, apparently was effective: the District Court found that the Seattle Plan "has substantially reduced the number of racially imbalanced schools in the district and has substantially reduced the percentage of minority students in those schools which remain racially imbalanced." [

  • ]


In late 1977, shortly before the Seattle Plan was formally adopted by the District, a number of Seattle residents who opposed the desegregation strategies being discussed by the School Board formed an organization called the Citizens for Voluntary Integration Committee (CiVIC). This organization, which the District Court found "was formed because of its founders' opposition to The Seattle Plan," [

  • ] attempted to enjoin implementation of the Board's mandatory desegregation program though litigation in state court; when these efforts failed, CiVIC drafted a statewide initiative designed to terminate the use of mandatory busing for purposes of racial integration. This proposal, known as Initiative 350, provided that "no school board ... shall directly or indirectly require any student to attend a school other than the school which is geographically nearest or next nearest the student's place of residence ... and which offers the course of study pursued by such student. ..." [
  • ] The initiative then sent out, however, a number of broad exceptions to this requirement: a student may be assigned beyond his neighborhood school if he "requires special education, care or guidance," or if "there are health or safety hazards, either natural or man made, or physical barriers or obstacles ... between the student's place of residency and the nearest or next nearest school," or if "the school nearest or next nearest to his place of residence is unfit or inadequate because of overcrowding, unsafe conditions or lack of physical facilities." [
  • ] Initiative 350 also specifically proscribed use of seven enumerated methods of "indirec[t]" student assignment--among them the redefinition of attendance zones, the pairing of schools, and the use of "feeder" schools--that are a part of the Seattle Plan. [
  • ] The initiative envisioned busing for racial purposes in only one circumstance: it did not purport to "prevent any court of competent jurisdiction from adjudicating constitutional issues relating to the public schools."[
  • ]

Its proponents placed Initiative 350 on the Washington ballot for the November 1978 general election. During the ensuing campaign, the District Court concluded, the leadership of CiVIC "acted legally and responsibly," and did not address "its appeals to the racial biases of the voters." [

  • ] At the same time, however, the court's findings demonstrate that the initiative was directed solely at desegregative busing in general, and at the Seattle Plan in particular. Thus, "[e]xcept for the assignment of students to effect racial balancing, the drafters of Initiative 350 attempted to preserve to school districts the maximum flexibility in the assignment of students," and "[e]xcept for racially balancing purposes" the initiative "permits local school districts to assign students other than to their nearest or next nearest schools for most, if not all, of the major reasons for which students are at present assigned to schools other than their nearest or next nearest schools." [
  • ] In campaigning for the measure, CiVIC officials accurately represented that its passage would result in "no loss of school district flexibility other than in busing for desegregation purposes," and it is evident that the campaign focused almost exclusively on the wisdom of "forced busing" for integration. [
  • ]

On November 8, 1978, two months after the Seattle Plan went into effect, Initiative 350 passed by a substantial margin, drawing almost 66% of the vote statewide. The initiative failed to attract majority support in two state legislative districts, both in Seattle. In the city as a whole, however, the initiative passed with some 61% of the vote. Within the month, the District, together with the Tacoma and Pasco school districts, initiated this suit against the State in United States District Court for the Western District of Washington, challenging the constitutionality of Initiative 350 under the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The United States and several community organizations intervened in support of the District; CiVIC intervened on behalf of the defendants.

After a nine-day trial, the District Court made extensive and detailed findings of fact. The court determined that "[t]hose Seattle schools which are most crowded are located in those areas of the city where the preponderance of minority families live." [

  • ] Yet the court found that Initiative 350, if implemented, "will prevent the racial balancing of a significant number of Seattle schools and will cause the school system to become more racially imbalanced than it presently is," "will make it impossible for Tacoma schools to maintain their present racial balance," and will make "doubtful" the prospects for integration of the Pasco schools. [
  • ] Except for desegregative busing, however, the court found that "almost all of the busing of students currently taking place in [Washington] is permitted by Initiative 350." [
  • ] And while the court found that "racial bias ... is a factor in the opposition to the 'busing' of students to obtain racial balance," it also found that voters were moved to support Initiative 350 for "a number of reasons," so that "[i]t is impossible to ascertain all of those reasons [o]r to determine the relative impact of those reasons upon the electorate."

The District Court then held Initiative 350 unconstitutional, for three independent reasons. The court first concluded that the initiative established an impermissible racial classification, in violation of Hunter v. Erickson, 393 U.S. 385 (1969), and Lee v. Nyquist, 318 F. Supp. 710 (WDNY 1970) (three-judge court), summarily affirmed, 402 U.S. 935, (1971), because it permits busing for non-racial reasons but forbids it for racial reasons." [

  • ] The court next held Initiative 350 invalid because "a racially discriminatory purpose was one of the factors which motivated the conception and adoption of the initiative." [
  • ] Finally, the District Court reasoned that Initiative 350 was unconstitutionally overbroad, because in the absence of a court order it barred even school boards that had engaged in de jure segregation from taking steps to foster integration.[
  • ] [
  • ] The court permantently enjoined implementation of the initiative's restrictions.

On the merits, a divided panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit affirmed, relying entirely on the District Court's first rationale. By subjecting desegregative student assignments to unique treatment, the Court of Appeals concluded, Initiative 350 "both creates a constitutionally-suspect racial classification and radically restructures the political process of Washington by allowing a state-wide majority to usurp traditional local authority over local school board educational policies." In doing so, the court continued, the initiative "remove[s] from local school boards their existing authority, and in large part their capability, to enact programs designed to desegregate the schools." [

  • ](emphasis in original). The court found such a result contrary to the principles of Hunter v. Erickson, and Lee v. Nyquist. The court acknowledged that the issue would be a different one had a successor school board attempted to rescind the Seattle Plan. Here, however, "a different governmental body--the state-wide electorate--rescinded a policy voluntarily enacted by locally elected school boards already subject to local political control."[
  • ] [
  • ]

The State appealed to this Court. We noted probable jurisdiction to address an issue of significance to our Nation's system of education. [

  • ]


The Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment guarantees racial minorities the right to full participation in the political life of the community. It is beyond dispute, of course, that given racial or ethnic groups may not be denied the franchise, or precluded from entering into the political process in a reliable and meaningful manner. [

  • ] But the Fourteenth Amendment also reaches "a political structure that treats all individuals as equals," [
  • ] yet more subtly distorts governmental processes in such a way as to place special burdens on the ability of minority groups to achieve beneficial legislation.

This principle received its clearest expression in Hunter v. Erickson, a case that involved attempts to overturn antidiscrimination legislation in Akron, Ohio. The Akron city council, pursuant to its ordinary legislative processes, had enacted a fair housing ordinance. In response, the local citizenry, using an established referendum procedure, [

  • ] amended the city charter to provide that ordinances regulating real estate transactions "on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin or ancestry must first be approved by a majority of the electors voting on the question at a regular or general election before said ordinance shall be effective." [
  • ] This action "not only suspended the operation of the existing ordinance forbidding housing discrimination, but also required the approval of the electors before any future [fair housing] ordinance could take effect." In essence, the amendment changed the requirements for the adoption of one type of local legislation: to enact an ordinance barring housing discrimination on the basis of race or religion, proponents had to obtain the approval of the city council and of a majority of the voters city-wide. To enact an ordinance preventing housing discrimination on other grounds, or to enact any other type of housing ordinance, proponents needed the support of only the city council.

In striking down the charter amendment, the Hunter Court recognized that, on its face, the provision "draws no distinctions among racial and religious groups." [

  • ] But it did differentiate "between those groups who sought the law's protection against racial ... discriminations in the sale and rental of real estate and those who sought to regulate real property transactions in the pursuit of other ends," thus "disadvantag[ing] those who would benefit from laws barring racial ... discriminations as against those who would bar other discriminations or who would otherwise regulate the real estate market in their favor.'' In "reality," the burden imposed by such an arrangement necessarily "falls on the minority. The majority needs no protection against discrimination and if it did, a referendum might be bothersome but no more than that." In effect, then, the charter amendment served as an "explicitly racial classification treating racial housing matters differently from other racial and housing matters." This made the amendment constitutionally suspect: "the State may no more disadvantage any particular group by making it more difficult to enact legislation in its behalf than it may dilute any person's vote or give any group a smaller representation than another of comparable size."

Lee v. Nyquist, (WDNY 1970), offers an application of the Hunter doctrine in a setting strikingly similar to the one now before us. That case involved the New York education system, which made use of both elected and appointed school boards and which conferred extensive authority on state education officials. In an effort to eliminate de facto segregation in New York's schools, those officials had directed the city of Buffalo--municipality with an appointed school board--to implement an integration plan. While these developments were proceeding, however, the New York Legislature enated a statute barring state education officials and appointed--though not elected--school boards from "assign[ing] or compell[ing] [students] to attend any school on account of race ... or for the purpose of achieving [racial] equality in attendance ... at any school."

Applying Hunter, the three-judge District Court invalidated the statute, noting that under the provision "[t]he Commissioner [of Education] and local appointed officials are prohibited from acting in [student assignment] matters only where racial criteria are involved. In the court's view, the statute therefore "place[d] burdens on the implementation of educational policies designed to deal with race on the local level" by "treating educational matters and making it more difficult to deal with racial imbalance in the public schools." This drew an impermissible distinction "between the treatment of problems involving racial matters and that afforded other problems in the same area." This Court affirmed the District Court's judgment without opinion.

These cases yield a simple but central principle. As Justice Harlan noted while concurring in the Court's opinion in Hunter, laws structuring political institutions or allocating political power according to ''neutral principles"--such as the executive veto, or the typically burdensome requirements for amending state constitutions--are not subject to equal protection attack, though they may "make it more difficult for minorities to achieve favorable legislation." Because such laws make it more difficult for every group in the community to enact comparable laws, they "provid[e] a just framework within which the diverse political groups in our society may fairly compete." Thus, the political majority may generally restructure the political process to place obstacles in the path of everyone seeking to secure the benefits of governmental action. But a different analysis is required when the State allocates governmental power non-neutrally, by explicitly using the racial nature of a decision to determine the decisionmaking process. State action of this kind, the Court said, "places special burdens on racial minorities within the governmental process," thereby "making it more difficult for certain racial and religious minorities [than for other members of the community] to achieve legislation that is in their interest." Such a structuring of the political process, the Court said, was "no more permissible than [is] denying [members of a racial minority] the vote, on an equal basis with others."


We believe that the Court of Appeals properly focused on Hunter and Lee, for we find the principle of those cases dispositive of the issue here. In our view, Initiative 350 must fall because it does "not attemp[t] to allocate governmental power on the basis of any general principle." Hunter v. Erickson, 393 U.S., at 395 (Harlan, J., concurring). Instead, it uses the racial nature of an issue to define the governmental decisionmaking structure, and thus imposes substantial and unique burdens on racial minorities.


Noting that Initiative 350 nowhere mentions "race" or "integration," appellants suggest that the legislation has no racial overtones; they maintain that Hunter is inapposite because the initiative simply permits busing for certain enumerated purposes while neutrally forbidding it for all other reasons. We find it difficult to believe that appellants' analysis is seriously advanced, however, for despite its facial neutrality there is little doubt that the initiative was effectively drawn for racial purposes. Neither the initiative's sponsors, nor the District Court, nor the Court of Appeals had any difficulty perceiving the racial nature of the issue settled by Initiative 350. Thus, the District Court found that the text of the referendum was carefully tailored to interfere only with desegregative busing. Proponents of the initiative candidly "represented that there would be no loss of school district flexibility other than in busing for desegregation purposes.'' And, as we have noted, Initiative 350 in fact allows school districts to bus their students "for most, if not all," of the non-integrative purposes required by their educational policies. The Washington electorate surely was aware of this, for it was "assured" by CiVIC officials that "99% of the school districts in the state"'--those that lacked mandatory integration programs--"would not be affected by passage of 350." It is beyond reasonable dispute, then, that the initiative was enacted "because of, not merely 'in spite of,' its adverse effects upon" busing for integration. Personnel Administrator of Massachusetts v. Feeney, 442 U.S. 256, 279 (1979).

Even accepting the view that Initiative 350 was enacted for such a purpose, the United States--which has changed its position during the course of this litigation, and now supports the State--maintains that busing for integration, unlike the fair housing ordinance involved in Hunter, is not a peculiarly "racial" issue at all. Again, we are not persuaded. It undoubtedly is true, as the United States suggests that the proponents of mandatory integration cannot be classified by race: Negroes and whites may be counted among both the supporters and the opponents of Initiative 350. And it should be equally clear that white as well as Negro children benefit from exposure to "ethnic and racial diversity in the classroom." Columbus Board of Education v. Penick, 443 U.S. 449, 486 (1979) (Powell, J., dissenting). See Milliken v. Bradley, 418 U.S. 717, 783 (1974) (Marshall, J., dissenting). But neither of these factors serves to distinguish Hunter, for we may fairly assume that members of the racial majority both favored and benefited from Akron's fair housing ordinance.

In any event, our cases suggest that desegregation of the public schools, like the Akron open housing ordinance, at bottom inures primarily to the benefit of the minority, and is designed for that purpose. Education has come to be "a principal instrument in awakening the child to cultural values, in preparing him for later professional training, and in helping him to adjust normally to his environment." Brown v. Board of Education, 347 U.S. 483, 493 (1954). When that environment is largely shaped by members of different racial and cultural groups, minority children can achieve their full measure of success only if they learn to function in--and are fully accepted by--the larger community. Attending an ethnically diverse school may help accomplish this goal by preparing minority children "for citizenship in our pluralistic society," Estes v. Metropolitan Branches of the Dallas NAACP, 444 U.S. 437, 451 (1980) (Powell, J., dissenting), while, we may hope, teaching members of the racial majority "to live in harmony and mutual respect" with children of minority heritage. Columbus Board of Eduication v. Penick, 443 U.S., at 485, n. 5 (Powell, J., dissenting). Lee v. Nyquist settles this point, for the Court there accepted the proposition that mandatory desegregation strategies present the type of racial issue implicated by the Hunter doctrine.[

  • ]

It is undeniable that busing for integration--particularly when ordered by a federal court--now engenders considerably more controversy than does the sort of fair housing ordinance debated in Hunter. [

  • ] But in the absence of a constitutional violation, the desirability and efficacy of school desegregation are matters to be resolved through the political process. For present purposes, it is enough that minorities may consider busing for integration to be "legislation that is in their interest." Given the racial focus of Initiative 350, this suffices to trigger application of the Hunter doctrine.


We are also satisfied that the practical effect of Initiative 350 is to work a reallocation of power of the kind condemned in Hunter. The initiative removes the authority to address a racial problem--and only a racial problem--from the existing decisionmaking body, in such a way as to burden minority interests. Those favoring the elimination of de facto school segregation now must seek relief from the state legislature, or from the statewide electorate. Yet authority over all other student assignment decisions, as well as over most other areas of educational policy, remains vested in the local school board. Indeed, by specifically exempting from Initiative 350's proscriptions most non-racial reasons for assigning students away from their neighborhood schools, the initiative expressly requires those championing school integration to surmount a considerably higher hurdle than persons seeking comparable legislative action. As in Hunter, then, the community's political mechanisms are modified to place effective decisionmaking authority over a racial issue at a different level of government.[

  • ] In a very obvious sense, the initiative thus "disadvantages those who would benefit from laws barring" de facto desegregation "as against those who ... would otherwise regulate" student assignment decisions; "the reality is that the law's impact falls on the minority."

The state appellants and the United States, in response to this line of analysis, argue that Initiative 350 has not worked any reallocation of power. They note that the State necessarily retains plenary authority over Washington's system of education, and therefore they suggest that the initiative amounts to nothing more than an unexceptional example of a State's intervention in its own school system. In effect, they maintain that the State functions as a "super school board," [

  • ] which typically involves itself in all areas of educational policy. And, the argument continues, if the State is the body that usually makes decisions in this area, Initiative 350 worked a simple change in policy rather than a forbidden reallocation of power. [
  • ]

This at first glance would seem to be a potent argument, for States traditionally have been accorded the widest latitude in ordering their internal governmental processes, [

  • ] and school boards, as creatures of the State, obviously must give effect to policies announced by the state legislature. But "insisting that a State may distribute legislative power as it desires ... furnish[es] no justification for a legislative structure which otherwise would violate the Fourteenth Amendment. Nor does the implementation of this change through popular referendum immunize it." [
  • ] The issue here, after all, is not whether Washington has the authority to intervene in the affairs of local school boards; it is, rather, whether the State has exercised that authority in a manner consistent with the Equal Protection Clause. As the Court noted in Hunter, "though Akron might have proceeded by majority vote ... on all its municipal legislation, it has instead chosen a more complex system. Having done so, the State may no more disadvantage any particular group by making it more difficult to enact legislation in its behalf than it may dilute any person's vote." [
  • ] Washington also has chosen to make use of a more complex governmental structure, and a close examination both of the Washington statutes and of the Court's decisions in related areas convinces us that Hunter is fully applicable here.

At the outset, it is irrelevant that the State might have vested all decisionmaking authority in itself, so long as the political structure it in fact erected imposes comparative burdens on minority interests; that much is settled by Hunter and by Lee. And until the passage of Initiative 350, Washington law in fact had established the local school board, rather than the State, as the entity charged with making decisions of the type at issue here. Like all 50 States, [

  • ] Washington of course is ultimately responsible for providing education within its borders, [
  • ] and it therefore has set certain procedural requirements and minimum educational standards to be met by each school. [
  • ] But Washington has chosen to meet its educational responsibilities primarily through "state and local officials, boards, and committees," [
  • ] and the responsibility to devise and tailor educational programs to suit local needs has emphatically been vested in the local school boards.

... School boards are generally directed to "develop a program identifying student learning objectives for their district[s]," [

  • ] to select instructional materials, [
  • ] to stock libraries as they deem necessary, [
  • ] and to initiate a variety of optional programs. [
  • ] School boards, of course, are given broad corporate powers. [
  • ] Significantly for present purposes, boards are directed to determine which students should be bused to school and to provide those students with transportation. [
  • ]

Indeed, the notion of school board responsibility for local educational programs is so firmly rooted that local boards are subject to disclosure and reporting provisions specifically designed to ensure the board's "accountability" to the people of the community for "the educational programs in the school distric[t]." [

  • ] And, perhaps most relevantly here, before the adoption of Initiative 350 the Washington Supreme Court

had found it within the general discretion of local school authorities to settle problems related to denial of "equal educational opportunity."[

  • ] It therefore had squarely held that a program of desegregative busing was a proper means of furthering the school board's responsibility to "administe[r] the schools in such a way as to provide a sound education for all children." [
  • ]

Given this statutory structure, we have little difficulty concluding that Initiative 350 worked a major reordering of the State's educational decisionmaking process. Before adoption of the initiative, the power to determine what programs would most appropriately fill a school district's educational needs--including programs involving student assignment and desegregation--was firmly committed to the local board's discretion. The question whether to provide an integrated learning environment rather than a system of neighborhood schools surely involved a decision of that sort. [

  • ] After passage of Initiative 350, authority over all but one of those areas remained in the hands of the local board. By placing power over desegregative busing at the state level, then, Initiative 350 plainly "differentiates between the treatment of problems involving racial matters and that afforded other problems in the same area." [
  • ] The District Court and the Court of Appeals similarly concluded that the initiative restructured the Washington political process, and we see no reason to challenge the determinations of courts familiar with local law. Cf. Milliken v. Bradley, 418 U.S., at 769 (White, J., dissenting).

That we reach this conclusion should come as no surprise, for when faced with a similar educational scheme in Milliken v. Bradley, the Court concluded that the actions of a local school board could not be attributed to the State that had created it. We there addressed the Michigan education system, which vests in the State constitutional responsibility for providing education: "The policy of [Michigan] has been to retain control of its school system, to be administered throughout the State under State laws by local State agencies ... to carry out the delegated functions given [them] by the legislature." Milliken v. Bradley, 418 U.S., at 794 (Marshall, J., dissenting), quoting School District of the City of Lansing v. State Board of Education, 367 Mich. 591, 595, 116 N.W. 2d 866, 868 (1962). To fulfill this responsibility, the State of Michigan provided a substantial measure of school district funding, established standards for teacher certification, determined part of the curriculum, set a minimum school term, approved bus routes and textbooks, established disciplinary procedures, and under certain circumstances had the power even to remove local school board members. [

  • ]

Yet the Court, noting that "[n]o single tradition in public education is more deeply rooted than local control over the operation of schools," concluded that the "Michigan educational structure ... in common with most States, provides for a large measure of local control." [

  • ] Relying on this analysis, the Court determined that a Michigan school board's assignment policies could not be attributed to the State, and therefore declined to permit interdistrict busing as a remedy for one school district's acts of unconstitutional segregation. If local school boards operating under a similar statutory structure are considered separate entities for purposes of constitutional adjudication when they make segregative assignment decisions, it is difficult to see why a different analysis should apply when a local board's desegregative policy is at issue.

In any event, we believe that the question here is again settled by Lee. There, state control of the educational system was fully as complete as it now is in Washington. [

  • ] The state statute under attack reallocated power over mandatory desegregation in two ways: it transferred authority from the State Commissioner of Education to local elected school boards, and it shifted authority from local appointed school boards to the state legislature. When presented with this restructuring of the political process, the District Court declared that it could "conceive of no more compelling case of the application of the Hunter principle." This Court of course affirmed the District Court's judgment. We see no relevant distinction between this case and Lee; indeed, it is difficult to imagine a more precise parallel.[
  • ]


To be sure, "the simple repeal or modification of desegregation or anti-discrimination laws, without more, never has been viewed as embodying a presumptively invalid racial classification." Crawford v. Los Angeles Board of Education, (1982). See Dayton Board of Education v. Brinkman, 443 U.S. 526, 531, n. 5 (1979); Hunter v. Erickson, 393 U.S., at 390, n. 5. As Justice Harlan noted in Hunter, the voters of the polity may express their displeasure through an established legislative or referendum procedure when particular legislation "arouses passionate opposition." [

  • ] Had Akron's fair housing ordinance been defeated at a referendum, for example, "Negroes would undoubtedly [have lost] an important political battle, but they would not thereby [have been] denied equal protection." [
  • ]

Initiative 350, however, works something more than the "mere repeal'' of a desegregation law by the political entity that created it. It burdens all future attempts to integrate Washington schools in districts throughout the State, by lodging decisionmaking authority over the question at a new and remote level of government. Indeed, the initiative, like the charter amendment at issue in Hunter, has its most pernicious effect on integration programs that do "not arouse extraordinary controversy" [

  • ] (emphasis in original). In such situations the initiative makes the enactment of racially beneficial legislation difficult, though the particular program involved might not have inspired opposition had it been promulgated through the usual legislative processes used for comparable legislation.[
  • ] This imposes direct and undeniable burdens on minority interests. "If a governmental institution is to be fair, one group cannot always be expected to win" [
  • ]; by the same token one group cannot be subjected to a debilitating and often insurmountable disadvantage.


In the end, appellants are reduced to suggesting that Hunter has been effectively overruled by more recent decisions of this Court. As they read it, Hunter applied a simple "disparate impact" analysis: it invalidated a facially neutral ordinance because of the law's adverse effects upon racial minorities. Appellants therefore contend that Hunter was swept away, along with the disparate impact approach to equal protection, in Washington v. Davis, 426 U.S. 229 (1976) and Arlington Heights v. Metropolitan Housing Dev. Corp.,429 U.S. 252 (1977).

Appellants unquestionably are correct when they suggest that "purposeful discrimination is 'the condition that offends the Constitution,"' [

  • ] for the "central purpose of the Equal Protection Clause ... is the prevention of official conduct discriminating on the basis of race." Thus, when facially neutral legislation is subjected to equal protection attack, an inquiry into intent is necessary, to determine whether the legislation in some sense was designed to accord disparate treatment on the basis of racial considerations. Appellants' suggestion that this analysis somehow conflicts with Hunter, however, misapprehends the basis of the Hunter doctrine. We have not insisted on a particularized inquiry into motivation in all equal protection cases: "A racial classification, regardless of purported motivation, is presumptively invalid and can be upheld only upon an extraordinary justification.'' [
  • ] And legislation of the kind challenged in Hunter similarly falls into an inherently suspect category.

There is one immediate and crucial difference between Hunter and the cases cited by appellants. While decisions such as Washington v. Davis and Arlington Heights considered classifications facially unrelated to race, the charter amendment at issue in Hunter dealt in explicitly racial terms with legislation designed to benefit minorities "as minorities," not legislation intended to benefit some larger group of underprivileged citizens among whom minorities were disproportionately represented. This does not mean, of course, that every attempt to address a racial issue gives rise to an impermissible racial classification. [

  • ] But when the political process or the decisionmaking mechanism used to address racially conscious legislation--and only such legislation--is singled out for peculiar and disadvantageous treatment, the governmental action plainly "rests on 'distinctions based on race."' [
  • ] And when the State's allocation of power places unusual burdens on the ability of racial groups to enact legislation specifically designed to overcome the "special condition" of prejudice, the governmental action seriously "curtail[s] the operation of those political processes ordinarily to be relied upon to protect minorities." [
  • ] In a most direct sense, this implicates the judiciary's special role in safeguarding the interests of those groups that are "relegated to such a position of political powerlessness as to command extraordinary protection from the majoritarian political process." San Antonio School Dist. v. Rodriguez, 411 U.S. 1, 28 (1973).

Hunter recognized the considerations addressed above, and it therefore rested on a principle that has been vital for over a century--that ''the core of the Fourteenth Amendment is the prevention of meaningful and unjustified official distinctions based on race." [

  • ] Just such distinctions infected the reallocation of decisionmaking authority considered in Hunter, for minorities are no less powerless with the vote than without it when a racial criterion is used to assign governmental power in such a way as to exclude particular racial groups "from effective participation in the political proces[s]." [
  • ] Certainly, a state requirement that "desegregation or anti-discrimination laws" [
  • ] and only such laws, be passed by unanimous vote of the legislature would be constitutionally suspect. It would be equally questionable for a community to require that laws or ordinances "designed to ameliorate race relations or to protect racial minorities" [
  • ] be confirmed by popular vote of the electorate as a whole, while comparable legislation is exempted from a similar procedure. The amendment addressed in Hunter--and, as we have explained, the legislation at issue here--was less obviously pernicious than are these examples, but was no different in principle.


In reaching this conclusion, we do not undervalue the magnitude of the State's interest in its system of education. Washington could have reserved to state officials the right to make all decisions in the areas of education and student assignment. It has chosen, however, to use a more elaborate system; having done so, the State is obligated to operate that system within the confines of the Fourteenth Amendment. That, we believe, it has failed to do.

Accordingly, the judgment of the Court of Appeals is


Along with Seattle, Tacoma School District No. 10 and Pasco School District No. 1 are the only districts in the State of Washington with comprehensive integration programs, and therefore the three are the only districts affected by Initiative 350. See 473 F. Supp., at 1009. Since 1965, Pasco has made use of school closures and a mandatory busing program to overcome the racial isolation caused by segregated housing patterns; if students attended the schools nearest their homes, three of Pasco's seven elementary schools would have a primarily white and three a primarily minority student body. Id., at 1002-1003. The Tacoma school district has made use of school closures, racially controlled enrollment at magnet schools, and voluntary transfers--though not mandatory busing--to enhance racial balance in its schools. Id., at 1003-1004.

The Court of Appeals therefore did not address the District Court's alternative finding that Initiative 350 had been adopted for discriminatory reasons, or its conclusion that the initiative was overbroad. [

  • ]

As does Initiative 350, the New York statute apparently permitted voluntary student transfers to achieve integration. [

  • ]

When authority to initiate desegregation programs was removed from appointed school boards and from state education officials, the only body capable of exercising power over such programs was the state legislature.

Thus we do not hold, as the dissent implies, [

  • ] that the State's attempt to repeal a desegregation program creates a racial classification, while "identical action" by the Seattle School Board does Generally speaking...

Vol. 01, Issue 42

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