Law & Courts Opinion

Sheff v. O’Neill at 20: Why Integrate Only Hartford?

By James E. Ryan — June 08, 2016 3 min read
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We are quickly approaching the 20th anniversary of Sheff v. O’Neill, a watershed desegregation case from Connecticut decided in July 1996. In that case, the Connecticut Supreme Court ruled that the State is obligated by the Connecticut Constitution to reduce school segregation in the Hartford metropolitan region. Importantly, the Court ruled that the state legislature had an affirmative constitutional duty to remedy segregation, whether de facto or de jure. It also ruled that the current school districting scheme, which makes school boundaries coterminous with city and town boundaries, was unconstitutional with respect to the plaintiffs, all of whom were from the Hartford area.

The decision went far beyond what the United States Supreme Court has ever required of states. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that only intentional, de jure segregation violates the U.S. Constitution, and it has defined intent narrowly. It is not enough for plaintiffs to show, for example, that states or school districts knew that their policies or practices would cause segregation. Plaintiffs have to show that states or school districts enacted those policies or practices precisely because they wanted to segregate schools--which is a difficult showing to make in the absence of some sort of admission from school officials. In Connecticut, by contrast, the simple existence of segregation imposes a duty on the state legislature to address it and reduce it.

Since the ruling, Hartford has embarked on a slow but steady march toward more integrated schools, mostly by using magnet schools and school choice across school district boundaries. The progress has been halting at times, but integration has increased substantially since 1996, when the Court ruled in Sheff. The decision and its aftermath have received a great deal of attention from the academy and the media, and recently Ira Glass featured Hartford in a powerful, two-part series on integration for This American Life.

Here’s the key question about Sheff: Why has its impact been limited to Hartford? In any legal case, including ones heard by a state supreme court or the United States Supreme Court, the ruling technically only binds the parties to the case and the remedy extends only to the plaintiffs. But just as clearly, everyone recognizes that a decision from the state’s highest court or the nation’s highest court is “the law of the land.” Governments bound by those decisions quite rightly act as if the ruling applies generally, and they do not typically insist that litigation continue person-by- person, or town-by-town before complying with the new law.

There are some notable exceptions to this norm, one of which involves school desegregation. After the Court’s ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, many southern states and school districts, who were not parties to the Brown case, did nothing. They waited to be sued before they acted, even though the outcome of the suit, because of the precedent of Brown, was pre-ordained. This was a stalling tactic and an act of resistance, pure and simple.

So what’s going on in Connecticut? There are other metropolitan areas in Connecticut that look just like Hartford, with a mostly minority city population surrounded by mostly white suburbs. New Haven and Bridgeport are the two most obvious examples. Yet the State has concentrated most of its integration efforts in Hartford. Technically, the ruling in Sheff only applies to the Hartford area. But just as clearly, the ruling establishes that the state legislature has an affirmative duty under the state constitution to remedy segregation. The state constitution applies just as much to New Haven and Bridgeport as it does to Hartford, so there is little reason to believe that the state legislature would have one set of obligations for Hartford and for Hartford alone.

There is a related, hard question: where have the lawyers been? When southern states and school districts dragged their heels, lawyers for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund dragged them to court to insist that they were governed by the ruling in Brown. Why haven’t lawyers done the same in Connecticut, to insist that the ruling in Sheff be applied throughout the state? More generally, why haven’t lawyers in other states used Sheff as a model to craft similar cases in their own states? That’s a question I will pursue in my next blog, but for now, it’s enough to focus on Connecticut and ask why Sheff has mostly been limited to Hartford.

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