Freeman v. Pitts

503 U.S. 467

Case Year: 1992

Case Ruling: 8-0, Reversed and Remanded

Opinion Justice: Kennedy

More Information

Concurring Opinions

Dissenting Opinions

Court Opinion Joiner(s):

Blackmun, O'Connor, Rehnquist, Scalia, Souter, Stevens, White


1st Concurring Opinion

Author: Scalia


1st Dissenting Opinion



2nd Concurring Opinion

Author: Souter


2nd Dissenting Opinion



3rd Concurring Opinion

Author: Blackmun

Joiner(s): O'Connor, Stevens

3rd Dissenting Opinion



Other Concurring Opinions:


At the time of this appeal, DeKalb County, Georgia, within which a portion of suburban Atlanta lay, administered seventy-three thousand students--the nation's thirty-second largest school system. Prior to Brown v. Board of Education (1954), the DeKalb County School System (DCSS) operated its schools on a racially segregated basis. Following the Brown mandate, the system was slow to respond to the need to desegregate. DCSS's first positive action was taken in 1966 when it adopted a "freedom of choice" plan, but that plan had little impact on the racially separated system. In 1968, the Supreme Court handed down its decision in Green v. School Bd. of New Kent County, which held that "freedom of choice" plans alone did not satisfy the constitutional obligation to desegregate. The ruling also identified specific factors that should be considered in determining whether constitutional compliance had been achieved. Within two months of the Green decision, black residents filed suit against school officials to have the desegregation efforts of DCSS declared constitutionally inadequate.

In response to this lawsuit, DCSS developed a more comprehensive desegregation plan. Over the next several years and under court supervision, the system implemented the plan and made significant progress toward meeting desegregation goals. In 1986, DCSS petitioned the district court to dismiss the case and release the system from judicial supervision. Willie Eugene Pitts and other black residents of the county opposed this request in light of rapid changes in residential patterns that had resulted in a resegregation of the schools.

The district judge indicated that he was impressed with how far DCSS had come toward meeting the goal of a truly unitary school system. He held that goals had been met with respect to four of the factors identified by the Court inGreen: student assignments, transportation, physical facilities, and extracurricular activities, and he removed judicial supervision of those areas. The judge did not dismiss the case, however, because he concluded that more progress was necessary in the two remaining Green criteria--teacher and principal assignments and resource allocation--as well as in an additional area, quality of education. He ruled that continued judicial supervision was necessary in these areas. The court of appeals reversed, holding that the district court should continue to supervise all of DCSS's desegregation efforts until there was full constitutional compliance. Robert Freeman, DCSS superintendent of schools, appealed to the Supreme Court on behalf of the district.



... We decide that the Court of Appeals did err in holding that, as a matter of law, the District Court had no discretion to permit DCSS to regain control over student assignment, transportation, physical facilities, and extracurricular activities, while retaining court supervision over the areas of faculty and administrative assignments and the quality of education, where full compliance had not been demonstrated.

It was an appropriate exercise of its discretion for the District Court to address the elements of a unitary system discussed in Green [ v. School Bd. of New Kent County (1968) ] to inquire whether other elements ought to be identified, and to determine whether minority students were being disadvantaged in ways that required the formulation of new and further remedies to ensure full compliance with the court's decree. Both parties agreed that quality of education was a legitimate inquiry in determining DCSS' compliance with the desegregation decree, and the trial court found it workable to consider the point in connection with its findings on resource allocation. Its order retaining supervision over this aspect of the case has not been challenged by the parties, and we need not examine it except as it underscores the school district's record of compliance in some areas, but not others. The District Court's approach illustrates that the Green factors need not be a rigid framework. It illustrates also the uses of equitable discretion. By withdrawing control over areas where judicial supervision is no longer needed, a district court can concentrate both its own resources and those of the school district on the areas where the effects of de jure discrimination have not been eliminated and further action is necessary in order to provide real and tangible relief to minority students.

The Court of Appeals' rejection of the District Court's order rests on related premises: first, that, given noncompliance in some discrete categories, there can be no partial withdrawal of judicial control; and second, until there is full compliance, heroic measures must be taken to ensure racial balance in student assignments system wide. Under our analysis and our precedents, neither premise is correct.

The Court of Appeals was mistaken in ruling that our opinion in Swann [ v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Bd. of Education (1971)] requires "awkward," "inconvenient," and "even bizarre" measures to achieve racial balance in student assignments in the late phases of carrying out a decree, when the imbalance is attributable neither to the prior de jure system nor to a later violation by the school district, but rather to independent demographic forces. In Swann, we undertook to discuss the objectives of a comprehensive desegregation plan and the powers and techniques available to a district court in designing it at the outset. We confirmed that racial balance in school assignments was a necessary part of the remedy in the circumstances there presented. In the case before us, the District Court designed a comprehensive plan for desegregation of DCSS in 1969, one that included racial balance in student assignments. The desegregation decree was designed to achieve maximum practicable desegregation. Its central remedy was the closing of black schools and the reassignment of pupils to neighborhood schools, with attendance zones that achieved racial balance. The plan accomplished its objective in the first year of operation, before dramatic demographic changes altered residential patterns. For the entire 17-year period respondents raised no substantial objection to the basic student assignment system, as the parties and the District Court concentrated on other mechanisms to eliminate the de jure taint.

That there was racial imbalance in student attendance zones was not tantamount to a showing that the school district was in noncompliance with the decree or with its duties under the law. Racial balance is not to be achieved for its own sake. It is to be pursued when racial imbalance has been caused by a constitutional violation. Once the racial imbalance due to the de jure violation has been remedied, the school district is under no duty to remedy imbalance that is caused by demographic factors. Swann ("Neither school authorities nor district courts are constitutionally required to make year-by-year adjustments of the racial composition of student bodies once the affirmative duty to desegregate has been accomplished and racial discrimination through official action is eliminated from the system. This does not mean that federal courts are without power to deal with future problems; but, in the absence of a showing that either the school authorities or some other agency of the State has deliberately attempted to fix or alter demographic patterns to affect the racial composition of the schools, further intervention by a district court should not be necessary"). If the unlawful de jure policy of a school system has been the cause of the racial imbalance in student attendance, that condition must be remedied. The school district bears the burden of showing that any current imbalance is not traceable, in a proximate way, to the prior violation.

The findings of the District Court that the population changes which occurred in DeKalb County were not caused by the policies of the school district, but rather by independent factors, are consistent with the mobility that is a distinct characteristic of our society. In one year (from 1987 to 1988), over 40 million Americans, or 17.6% of the total population, moved households. Over a third of those people moved to a different county, and over six million migrated between States. In such a society, it is inevitable that the demographic makeup of school districts, based as they are on political subdivisions such as counties and municipalities, may undergo rapid change....

Where resegregation is a product not of state action, but of private choices, it does not have constitutional implications. It is beyond the authority and beyond the practical ability of the federal courts to try to counteract these kinds of continuous and massive demographic shifts. To attempt such results would require ongoing and never-ending supervision by the courts of school districts simply because they were once de jure segregated. Residential housing choices, and their attendant effects on the racial composition of schools, present an ever-changing pattern, one difficult to address through judicial remedies.

In one sense of the term, vestiges of past segregation by state decree do remain in our society and in our schools. Past wrongs to the black race, wrongs committed by the State and in its name, are a stubborn fact of history. And stubborn facts of history linger and persist. But though we cannot escape our history, neither must we overstate its consequences in fixing legal responsibilities. The vestiges of segregation that are the concern of the law in a school case may be subtle and intangible, but nonetheless they must be so real that they have a causal link to the de jure violation being remedied. It is simply not always the case that demographic forces causing population change bear any real and substantial relation to a de jure violation. And the law need not proceed on that premise.

As the de jure violation becomes more remote in time and these demographic changes intervene, it becomes less likely that a current racial imbalance in a school district is a vestige of the prior de jure system. The causal link between current conditions and the prior violation is even more attenuated if the school district has demonstrated its good faith. In light of its finding that the demographic changes in DeKalb County are unrelated to the prior violation, the District Court was correct to entertain the suggestion that DCSS had no duty to achieve system wide racial balance in the student population. It was appropriate for the District Court to examine the reasons for the racial imbalance before ordering an impractical, and no doubt massive, expenditure of funds to achieve racial balance after 17 years of efforts to implement the comprehensive plan in a district where there were fundamental changes in demographics, changes not attributable to the former de jure regime or any later actions by school officials. The District Court's determination to order instead the expenditure of scarce resources in areas such as the quality of education, where full compliance had not yet been achieved, underscores the uses of discretion in framing equitable remedies.

To say, as did the Court of Appeals, that a school district must meet all six Green factors before the trial court can declare the system unitary and relinquish its control over school attendance zones, and to hold further that racial balancing by all necessary means is required in the interim, is simply to vindicate a legal phrase. The law is not so formalistic. A proper rule must be based on the necessity to find a feasible remedy that ensures system-wide compliance with the court decree and that is directed to curing the effects of the specific violation.

We next consider whether retention of judicial control over student attendance is necessary or practicable to achieve compliance in other facets of the school system. Racial balancing in elementary and secondary school student assignments may be a legitimate remedial device to correct other fundamental inequities that were themselves caused by the constitutional violation. We have long recognized that the Green factors may be related or interdependent. Two or moreGreen factors may be intertwined or synergistic in their relation, so that a constitutional violation in one area cannot be eliminated unless the judicial remedy addresses other matters as well. We have observed, for example, that student segregation and faculty segregation are often related problems.... As a consequence, a continuing violation in one area may need to be addressed by remedies in another....

There was no showing that racial balancing was an appropriate mechanism to cure other deficiencies in this case. It is true that the school district was not in compliance with respect to faculty assignments, but the record does not show that student reassignments would be a feasible or practicable way to remedy this defect. To the contrary, the District Court suggests that DCSS could solve the faculty assignment problem by reassigning a few teachers per school. The District Court, not having our analysis before it, did not have the opportunity to make specific findings and conclusions on this aspect of the case, however. Further proceedings are appropriate for this purpose.

The requirement that the school district show its good-faith commitment to the entirety of a desegregation plan so that parents, students, and the public have assurance against further injuries or stigma also should be a subject for more specific findings. We stated in [ Board of Ed. of Oklahoma City of Public Schools v.] Dowell [1991] that the good-faith compliance of the district with the court order over a reasonable period of time is a factor to be considered in deciding whether or not jurisdiction could be relinquished.... A history of good faith compliance is evidence that any current racial imbalance is not the product of a new de jure violation, and enables the district court to accept the school board's representation that it has accepted the principle of racial equality and will not suffer intentional discrimination in the future....

When a school district has not demonstrated good faith under a comprehensive plan to remedy ongoing violations, we have, without hesitation, approved comprehensive and continued district court supervision. See Columbus Bd. of Education v. Penick (1979)....

... [T]he District Court in this case stated that, throughout the period of judicial supervision, it has been impressed by the successes DCSS has achieved and its dedication to providing a quality education for all students, and that DCSS "has traveled the often long road to unitary status almost to its end." With respect to those areas where compliance had not been achieved, the District Court did not find that DCSS had acted in bad faith or engaged in further acts of discrimination since the desegregation plan went into effect. This, though, may not be the equivalent of a finding that the school district has an affirmative commitment to comply in good faith with the entirety of a desegregation plan, and further proceedings are appropriate for this purpose as well.

The judgment is reversed, and the case is remanded to the Court of Appeals....

It is so ordered.


The District Court in the present case found that the imbalances in student assignment were attributable to private demographic shifts, rather than governmental action. Without disturbing this finding, and without finding that revision of student assignments was necessary to remedy some other unlawful government action, the Court of Appeals ordered DeKalb County to institute massive busing and other programs to achieve integration. The Court convincingly demonstrates that this cannot be reconciled with our cases, and I join its opinion. Our decision will be of great assistance to the citizens of DeKalb County, who, for the first time since 1969, will be able to run their own public schools, at least so far as student assignments are concerned. It will have little effect, however, upon the many other school districts throughout the country that are still being supervised by federal judges, since it turns upon the extraordinarily rare circumstance of a finding that no portion of the current racial imbalance is a remnant of prior de jure discrimination. While it is perfectly appropriate for the Court to decide this case on that narrow basis, we must resolve--if not today, then soon--what is to be done in the vast majority of other districts where, though our cases continue to profess that judicial oversight of school operations is a temporary expedient, democratic processes remain suspended, with no prospect of restoration, 38 years after Brown v. Board of Education....

At some time, we must acknowledge that it has become absurd to assume, without any further proof, that violations of the Constitution dating from the days when Lyndon Johnson was President, or earlier, continue to have an appreciable effect upon current operation of schools. We are close to that time. While we must continue to prohibit, without qualification, all racial discrimination in the operation of public schools, and to afford remedies that eliminate not only the discrimination but its identified consequences, we should consider laying aside the extraordinary, and increasingly counterfactual, presumption of Green. We must soon revert to the ordinary principles of our law, of our democratic heritage, and of our educational tradition: that plaintiffs alleging equal protection violations must prove intent and causation, and not merely the existence of racial disparity ... ; that public schooling, even in the South, should be controlled by locally elected authorities acting in conjunction with parents ... ; and that it is "desirable" to permit pupils to attend "schools nearest their homes."...


I join the Court's opinion holding that, where there are vestiges of a dual system in some of a judicially supervised school system's aspects, or Green-type factors, a district court will retain jurisdiction over the system, but need not maintain constant supervision or control over factors as to which compliance has been achieved....

... Before a district court ends its supervision of student assignments ... it should make a finding that there is no immediate threat of unremedied Green-type factors causing population or student enrollment changes that in turn may imbalance student composition in this way. And, because the district court retains jurisdiction over the case, it should, of course, reassert control over student assignments if it finds that this does happen.


... The District Court apparently has concluded that DCSS should be relieved of the responsibility to desegregate because such responsibility would be burdensome. To be sure, changes in demographic patterns aggravated the vestiges of segregation and made it more difficult for DCSS to desegregate. But an integrated school system is no less desirable because it is difficult to achieve, and it is no less a constitutional imperative because that imperative has gone unmet for 38 years.

Although respondents challenged the District Court's causation conclusions in the Court of Appeals, that court did not reach the issue. Accordingly, in addition to the issues the Court suggests be considered in further proceedings, I would remand for the Court of Appeals to review ... the District Court's finding that DCSS has met its burden of proving the racially identifiable schools are in no way the result of past segregative action.