Equity & Diversity

High Court Closes Historic Desegregation Case

By Mark Walsh — April 24, 2002 5 min read
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A 37-year-old lawsuit that became one of the landmarks of the desegregation era reached a quiet conclusion last week with a one-sentence order from the U.S. Supreme Court.

The high court declined without comment on April 15 any further review of desegregation efforts in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg County, N.C., school system. In a 1971 ruling, the Supreme Court used the Charlotte case to uphold broad remedial powers for federal judges to shape desegregation remedies, including for the first time court-mandated busing.

The justices last week refused to hear two separate appeals stemming from the latest phase of lower-court rulings in the case. One was from black families who argued that courts were premature in declaring the 109,000-student system “unitary,” or legally desegregated, because of recent trends resulting in resegregation.

The other was from a group of white parents who sued the school system in 1997 seeking an end to the use of racial quotas to assign students to magnet schools. That suit was consolidated with the district’s long-running desegregation case, and when a federal district judge in Charlotte declared the school system unitary, he awarded $1.5 million in attorneys’ fees to the lawyers for the white parents.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit, in Richmond, upheld the finding of unitary status last year, but reversed the award of lawyers’ fees. The white parents appealed that part of the decision to the Supreme Court.

The court’s refusal to hear the appeals in Cappachione v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education (Case No. 01-1094) and Belk v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education (Case No. 01-1122) was a victory for the district.

“This decision, today, represents the final chapter in one of the nation’s longest-running and most historic school desegregation cases,” Arthur Griffin, the chairman of the school board, said at a news conference. “As an old soldier and one who has been engaged in this battle for a very long time, let me tell you that our job is far from over in terms of providing equity and excellence in education for all of our children.”

The desegregation program in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg district, which still includes mandatory busing, has enjoyed an unusually high level of community support in recent years. But district parents are perhaps eager for the desegregation era to come to a close. The district has for at least two years been fine-tuning its Family Choice Plan, which would allow parents to choose neighborhood schools and other options once the court supervision ended. Early this year, in anticipation of the plan going into effect in fall 2002 (which it now will), more than 96 percent of district students completed applications.

Restoring Control

Few legal experts expected the Supreme Court to get involved in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg case. In several desegregation cases during the 1990s, the court’s conservative majority signaled its impatience with continuing court supervision of school systems.

In its 1995 decision in Missouri v. Jenkins, the court’s most recent desegregation opinion, the majority frequently mentioned the need to “restore state and local authorities to the control of a school system that is operating in compliance with the Constitution.”

When the lawsuit was filed against Charlotte-Mecklenburg in 1965, foot-dragging was the typical response by Southern districts to such suits. The federal district court in Charlotte and the 4th Circuit court ruled that the district had no affirmative duty to desegregate. But the Supreme Court gave recalcitrant school systems a kick in the pants in a 1968 decision, saying they must develop plans that promise “realistically to work now.” The next year a federal judge in Charlotte ordered a sweeping remedy that included busing for desegregation purposes.

In its 1971 ruling in Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education, the Supreme Court unanimously upheld the desegregation plan ordered by the district court. Chief Justice Warren E. Burger wrote the opinion, and while it is remembered for ushering in the controversial idea of busing, the discussion of that issue was relatively short.

Bus transportation was a “normal and accepted tool of educational policy,” the chief justice wrote. But “an objection to transportation of students may have validity when the time or distance of travel is so great as to either risk the health of the children or significantly impinge on the educational process.”

Although busing and other desegregation remedies met some resistance in Charlotte, the plan ultimately gained far more acceptance than in other cities in the 1970s, particularly Northern cities facing court-mandated busing such as Boston.

Over time, Charlotte began relying more on magnet schools to encourage voluntary desegregation. But in 1997, the district’s use of race to determine admissions to those schools led to a lawsuit by a white parent, William Capacchione. While that suit sought to end the use of race in magnet school admissions, other white parents intervened to seek a declaration that the system had met its obligations to desegregate.

In its 7-4 ruling last year upholding the finding of unitary status for the district, the full 4th Circuit court said, “the ‘end purpose’ of federal intervention to remedy segregation has been served” and it was time “to show confidence in those who have achieved this success and to restore to state and local authorities the control of their school system.”

In their appeal to the Supreme Court, lawyers for the black parents opposing the end of the case argued that the Charlotte-Mecklenburg district had fostered resegregation by building 25 of 27 new schools from 1980 to 1997 in white residential areas “while allowing existing schools in black areas to deteriorate.”

The appeal, filed with the aid of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund in New York City, argued that the lower-court rulings declaring Charlotte-Mecklenburg unitary “promise the nation an end to school desegregation decrees even where a school district has taken actions that resegregate its schools ... and where tangible vestiges of segregation exist.”

A version of this article appeared in the April 24, 2002 edition of Education Week as High Court Closes Historic Desegregation Case

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