Board of Education of Oklahoma City v. Dowell

498 U.S. 237

Case Year: 1991

Case Ruling: 5-3, Reversed and Remanded

Opinion Justice: Rehnquist

More Information

Concurring Opinions

Dissenting Opinions

Court Opinion Joiner(s):

Kennedy, O'Connor, Scalia, Souter


1st Concurring Opinion



1st Dissenting Opinion

Author: Marshall

Joiner(s): Blackmun, Stevens

2nd Concurring Opinion



2nd Dissenting Opinion



3rd Concurring Opinion



3rd Dissenting Opinion



Other Concurring Opinions:


In 1961, black students and their parents sued the Board of Education of Oklahoma City to end its practice of segregated public schools. In 1963, a federal district court found that in the past Oklahoma City had intentionally segregated both public schools and housing, and that it was operating a school system that was intentionally segregated by race. Two years later, the district court found that initial attempts by the school board to desegregate had been ineffective. A similar finding was reached in 1972. At that point the district court ordered the school district to adopt a more comprehensive desegregation plan, known as the Finger Plan. Under this plan kindergarteners were assigned to neighborhood schools, children in grades one through four attended previously all-white schools, children in grade five attended previously all-black schools, and children in upper grades would be bused to various schools to promote desegregation. In well-integrated neighborhoods there would be stand-alone schools for all grades. In 1977, after five years under the Finger Plan, the school board claimed that the system's schools were desegregated and successfully petitioned the court to free it from judicial supervision.

By 1984, demographic changes had led to greater burdens on young black children. More and more black students were required to be bused for longer and longer distances. After consulting with parent groups, the school board adopted a new Student Reassignment Plan (SRP) that allowed for increased neighborhood school assignments for children in grades K-4. In 1985, black parents filed a motion to reopen the case against the school board, claiming that the SRP would result in a return to segregation. The district court refused their request. The judge found that the school board, administration, faculty, support staff, and student body were integrated, and that transportation, extracurricular activities, and facilities within the district were equal and nondiscriminatory. A unitary system had been achieved; therefore, the district court concluded that court-ordered desegregation must end.

After additional judicial hearings, the court of appeals reversed the district court.

Relying on United States v. Swift & Co. (1932), it held that a desegregation decree should remain in effect until a school district could show "grievous wrong evoked by new and unforeseen conditions".... Given that a number of schools would return to being primarily one-race schools under the SRP, circumstances in Oklahoma City had not changed enough to justify modification of the decree. The Supreme Court granted review to consider the appropriate standard to be used in ending judicial supervision of school district under desegregation orders.



Petitioner Board of Education of Oklahoma City (Board) sought dissolution of a decree entered by the District Court imposing a school desegregation plan. The District Court granted relief over the objection of respondents Robert L. Dowell, et al., black students and their parents. The Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit reversed, holding that the Board would be entitled to such relief only upon "'[n]othing less than a clear showing of grievous wrong evoked by new and unforeseen conditions....'" We hold that the Court of Appeals' test is more stringent than is required either by our cases dealing with injunctions or by the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment....

The Court of Appeals... relied upon language from this Court's decision in United States v. Swift and Co. [1932] for the proposition that a desegregation decree could not be lifted or modified absent a showing of "grievous wrong evoked by new and unforeseen conditions."... It also held that "compliance alone cannot become the basis for modifying or dissolving an injunction," relying on United States v. W.T. Grant Co. (1953). We hold that its reliance was mistaken.

In Swift, several large meatpacking companies entered into a consent decree whereby they agreed to refrain forever from entering into the grocery business. The decree was by its terms effective in perpetuity. The defendant meatpackers and their allies had, over a period of a decade, attempted, often with success in the lower courts, to frustrate operation of the decree. It was in this context that the language relied upon by the Court of Appeals in this case was used.

...In the present case, a finding by the District Court that the Oklahoma City School District was being operated in compliance with the commands of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, and that it was unlikely that the Board would return to its former ways, would be a finding that the purposes of the desegregation litigation had been fully achieved. No additional showing of "grievous wrong evoked by new and unforeseen conditions" is required of the school board....

From the very first, federal supervision of local school systems was intended as a temporary measure to remedy past discrimination. Brown [ v. Board of Education (1955)] considered the "complexities arising from the transition to a system of public education freed of racial discrimination" in holding that the implementation of desegregation was to proceed "with all deliberate speed." Green [ v. County School Board of New Kent County (1968)] also spoke of the "transition to a unitary, nonracial system of public education."

Considerations based on the allocation of powers within our federal system, we think, support our view that quoted language from Swift does not provide the proper standard to apply to injunctions entered in school desegregation cases. Such decrees, unlike the one in Swift, are not intended to operate in perpetuity. Local control over the education of children allows citizens to participate in decision making, and allows innovation so that school programs can fit local needs. Milliken v. Bradley (1974); San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez (1973). The legal justification for displacement of local authority by an injunctive decree in a school desegregation case is a violation of the Constitution by the local authorities. Dissolving a desegregation decree after the local authorities have operated in compliance with it for a reasonable period of time properly recognizes that "necessary concern for the important values of local control of public school systems dictates that a federal court's regulatory control of such systems not extend beyond the time required to remedy the effects of past intentional discrimination." Spangler v. Pasadena City Bd. of Education [1976](Kennedy, J., concurring)....

A district court need not accept at face value the profession of a school board which has intentionally discriminated that it will cease to do so in the future. But in deciding whether to modify or dissolve a desegregation decree, a school board's compliance with previous court orders is obviously relevant. In this case, the original finding of de jure segregation was entered in 1963, the injunctive decree from which the Board seeks relief was entered in 1972, and the Board complied with the decree in good faith until 1985. Not only do the personnel of school boards change over time, but the same passage of time enables the district court to observe the good faith of the school board in complying with the decree. The test espoused by the Court of Appeals would condemn a school district, once governed by a board which intentionally discriminated, to judicial tutelage for the indefinite future. Neither the principles governing the entry and dissolution of injunctive decrees, nor the commands of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment require any such Draconian result.

Petitioners urge that we reinstate the decision of the District Court terminating the injunction, but we think that the preferable course is to remand the case to that court so that it may decide, in accordance with this opinion, whether the Board made a sufficient showing of constitutional compliance as of 1985, when the SRP was adopted, to allow the injunction to be dissolved. The District Court should address itself to whether the Board had complied in good faith with the desegregation decree since it was entered, and whether the vestiges of past discrimination had been eliminated to the extent practicable.

In considering whether the vestiges of de jure segregation had been eliminated as far as practicable, the District Court should look not only at student assignments, but "to every facet of school operations--faculty, staff, transportation, extracurricular activities and facilities." Green. See also Swann [ v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg County Board of Education(1971)] ("[E]xisting policy and practice with regard to faculty, staff, transportation, extracurricular activities, and facilities" are "among the most important indicia of a segregated system").

After the District Court decides whether the Board was entitled to have the decree terminated, it should proceed to decide respondent's challenge to the SRP. A school district which has been released from an injunction imposing a desegregation plan no longer requires court authorization for the promulgation of policies and rules regulating matters such as assignment of students and the like, but it of course remains subject to the mandate of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. If the Board was entitled to have the decree terminated as of 1985, the District Court should then evaluate the Board's decision to implement the SRP under appropriate equal protection principles. See Washington v. Davis (1976);Arlington Heights v. Metropolitan Housing Development Corp. (1977).

The judgment of the Court of Appeals is reversed, and the case is remanded to the District Court for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

It is so ordered.


Oklahoma gained statehood in 1907. For the next 65 years, the Oklahoma City School Board (Board) maintained segregated schools--initially relying on laws requiring dual school systems; thereafter, by exploiting residential segregation that had been created by legally enforced restrictive covenants. In 1972--18 years after this Court first found segregated schools unconstitutional--a federal court finally interrupted this cycle, enjoining the Board to implement a specific plan for achieving actual desegregation of its schools.

The practical question now before us is whether, 13 years after that injunction was imposed, the same Board should have been allowed to return many of its elementary schools to their former one-race status. The majority today suggests that 13 years of desegregation was enough. The Court remands the case for further evaluation of whether the purposes of the injunctive decree were achieved sufficient to justify the decree's dissolution. However, the inquiry it commends to the District Court fails to recognize explicitly the threatened reemergence of one-race schools as a relevant "vestige" of de jure segregation.

In my view, the standard for dissolution of a school desegregation decree must reflect the central aim of our school desegregation precedents. In Brown v. Board of Education (1954), a unanimous Court declared that racially "[s]eparate educational facilities are inherently unequal."... This holding rested on the Court's recognition that state-sponsored segregation conveys a message of "inferiority as to th[e] status [of Afro-American school children] in the community that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely ever to be undone."... Remedying this evil and preventing its recurrence were the motivations animating our requirement that formerly de jure segregated school districts take all feasible steps to eliminate racially identifiable schools. See Green v. New Kent County School Bd. (1968); Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Bd. of Education (1971).

I believe a desegregation decree cannot be lifted so long as conditions likely to inflict the stigmatic injury condemned inBrown I persist and there remain feasible methods of eliminating such conditions. Because the record here shows, and the Court of Appeals found, that feasible steps could be taken to avoid one-race schools, it is clear that the purposes of the decree have not yet been achieved, and the Court of Appeals' reinstatement of the decree should be affirmed. I therefore dissent....