Missouri ex rel. Gaines v. Canada

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Lloyd Gaines, an African American resident of Missouri, was denied admission to the University of Missouri School of Law. Gaines had graduated with a bachelor of arts degree from Lincoln University, a state institution for the higher education of Black students. All parties agree that he possessed the academic qualifications necessary for admission to the University of Missouri. He was rejected, as the university’s response to his application stated, because it is “contrary to the constitution, laws, and public policy of the State to admit a negro as a student in the University of Missouri.” Gaines (or any Black student in Missouri who wished to pursue a law degree) faced a difficult obstacle. There was no state-supported law school in Missouri available to Black students, although there were plans for the future creation of such opportunities at Lincoln University.

            University officials offered Gaines a form of relief. The state would pay tuition expenses for African American students to attend a university of any adjacent state to pursue degrees not offered at Lincoln. State law schools in Kansas, Nebraska, Iowa, and Illinois qualified under this policy.

            Gaines believed that this alternative program was insufficient to satisfy the state’s Fourteenth Amendment equal protection obligation and under the sponsorship of the NAACP took legal action against S. W. Canada, the university’s registrar, demanding admission to the University of Missouri. State courts ruled against him.


MR. CHIEF JUSTICE HUGHES delivered the opinion of the Court.

In answering petitioner's contention that this discrimination constituted a denial of his constitutional right, the state court has fully recognized the obligation of the State to provide negroes with advantages for higher education substantially equal to the advantages afforded to white students. The State has sought to fulfill that obligation by furnishing equal facilities in separate schools, a method the validity of which has been sustained by our decisions. Plessy v. Ferguson [1896]. Respondents’ counsel have appropriately emphasized the special solicitude of the State for the higher education of negroes as shown in the establishment of Lincoln University, a state institution well conducted on a plane with the University of Missouri so far as the offered courses are concerned. It is said that Missouri is a pioneer in that field and is the only State in the Union which has established a separate university for negroes on the same basis as the state university for white students. But, commendable as is that action, the fact remains that instruction in law for negroes is not now afforded by the State, either at Lincoln University or elsewhere within the State, and that the State excludes negroes from the advantages of the law school it has established at the University of Missouri.

It is manifest that this discrimination, if not relieved by the provisions we shall presently discuss, would constitute a denial of equal protection. . . .

[I]t appears that the policy of establishing a law school at Lincoln University has not yet ripened into an actual establishment, and it cannot be said that a mere declaration of purpose, still unfulfilled, is enough. The provision for legal education at Lincoln is at present entirely lacking. Respondents’ counsel urge that, if, on the date when petitioner applied for admission to the University of Missouri, he had instead applied to the curators of Lincoln University, it would have been their duty to establish a law school; that this “agency of the State,” to which he should have applied, was “specifically charged with the mandatory duty to furnish him what he seeks.” We do not read the opinion of the [Missouri] Supreme Court as construing the state statute to impose such a “mandatory duty” as the argument seems to assert. . . .

The state court has not held that it would have been the duty of the curators to establish a law school at Lincoln University for the petitioner on his application. Their duty, as the court defined it, would have been either to supply a law school at Lincoln University. . . or to furnish him the opportunity to obtain his legal training in another State. . . .

 [W]e must regard the question whether the provision for the legal education in other States of negroes resident in Missouri is sufficient to satisfy the constitutional requirement of equal protection as the pivot upon which this case turns.

The state court stresses the advantages that are afforded by the law schools of the adjacent States—Kansas, Nebraska, Iowa and Illinois—which admit nonresident negroes. The court considered that these were schools of high standing where one desiring to practice law in Missouri can get “as sound, comprehensive, valuable legal education” as in the University of Missouri; that the system of education in the former is the same as that in the latter, and is designed to give the students a basis for the practice of law in any State where the Anglo-American system of law obtains; that the law school of the University of Missouri does not specialize in Missouri law, and that the course of study and the case books used in the five schools are substantially identical. . . .

We think that these matters are beside the point. The basic consideration is not as to what sort of opportunities other States provide, or whether they are as good as those in Missouri, but as to what opportunities Missouri itself furnishes to white students and denies to negroes solely upon the ground of color. The admissibility of laws separating the races in the enjoyment of privileges afforded by the State rests wholly upon the equality of the privileges which the laws give to the separated groups within the State. The question here is not of a duty of the State to supply legal training, or of the quality of the training which it does supply, but of its duty when it provides such training to furnish it to the residents of the State upon the basis of an equality of right. By the operation of the laws of Missouri, a privilege has been created for white law students which is denied to negroes by reason of their race. The white resident is afforded legal education within the State; the negro resident having the same qualifications is refused it there, and must go outside the State to obtain it. That is a denial of the equality of legal right to the enjoyment of the privilege which the State has set up, and the provision for the payment of tuition fees in another State does not remove the discrimination.

The equal protection of the laws is “a pledge of the protection of equal laws.” Yick Wo v. Hopkins [1886]. Manifestly, the obligation of the State to give the protection of equal laws can be performed only where its laws operate, that is, within its own jurisdiction. It is there that the equality of legal right must be maintained. That obligation is imposed by the Constitution upon the States severally as governmental entities —each responsible for its own laws establishing the rights and duties of persons within its borders. It is an obligation the burden of which cannot be cast by one State upon another, and no State can be excused from performance by what another State may do or fail to do. That separate responsibility of each State within its own sphere is of the essence of statehood maintained under our dual system. . . . We find it impossible to conclude that what otherwise would be an unconstitutional discrimination, with respect to the legal right to the enjoyment of opportunities within the State, can be justified by requiring resort to opportunities elsewhere. That resort may mitigate the inconvenience of the discrimination, but cannot serve to validate it.

Nor can we regard the fact that there is but a limited demand in Missouri for the legal education of negroes as excusing the discrimination in favor of whites. . . .

Here, petitioner's right was a personal one. It was as an individual that he was entitled to the equal protection of the laws, and the State was bound to furnish him within its borders facilities for legal education substantially equal to those which the State there afforded for persons of the white race, whether or not other negroes sought the same opportunity.

It is urged, however, that the provision for tuition outside the State is a temporary one—that it is intended to operate merely pending the establishment of a law department for negroes at Lincoln University. While, in that sense, the discrimination may be termed temporary, it may nevertheless continue for an indefinite period by reason of the discretion given to the curators of Lincoln University and the alternative of arranging for tuition in other States, as permitted by the state law as construed by the state court, so long as the curators find it unnecessary and impracticable to provide facilities for the legal instruction of negroes within the State. In that view, we cannot regard the discrimination as excused by what is called its temporary character.

We are of the opinion that the ruling was error, and that petitioner was entitled to be admitted to the law school of the State University in the absence of other and proper provision for his legal training within the State.

The judgment of the Supreme Court of Missouri is reversed, and the cause is remanded for further proceedings not inconsistent with this opinion.


Separate opinion of MR. JUSTICE McREYNOLDS.

Considering the disclosures of the record, the Supreme Court of Missouri arrived at a tenable conclusion, and its judgment should be affirmed. That court well understood the grave difficulties of the situation, and rightly refused to upset the settled legislative policy of the State by directing a mandamus.

In Cummming v. Richmond County Board of Education [1899], this Court, through Mr. Justice Harlan, declared:

The education of the people in schools maintained by state taxation is a matter belonging to the respective States, and any interference on the part of Federal authority with the management of such schools cannot be justified except in the case of a clear and unmistakable disregard of rights secured by the supreme law of the land.

For a long time, Missouri has acted upon the view that the best interest of her people demands separation of whites and negroes in schools. Under the opinion just announced, I presume she may abandon her law school, and thereby disadvantage her white citizens without improving petitioner's opportunities for legal instruction; or she may break down the settled practice concerning separate schools and thereby, as indicated by experience, damnify both races. Whether by some other course it may be possible for her to avoid condemnation is matter for conjecture.

The State has offered to provide the negro petitioner opportunity for study of the law—if perchance that is the thing really desired—by paying his tuition at some nearby school of good standing. This is far from unmistakable disregard of his rights, and, in the circumstances, is enough to satisfy any reasonable demand for specialized training. . . .

Mr. Justice BUTLER concurs in the above views.