Board of Education of Oklahoma City Public Schools v. Dowell

PETITIONER: Board of Education of Oklahoma City Public Schools
RESPONDENT: Robert L. Dowell
LOCATION: Oklahoma City Board of Education

DOCKET NO.: 89-1080
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1990-1991)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit

CITATION: 498 US 237 (1991)
ARGUED: Oct 02, 1990
DECIDED: Jan 15, 1991

ADVOCATES:
Julius LeVonne Chambers - argued the cause for the respondents
Kenneth W. Starr - argued the cause for the United States as amicus curiae urging reversal
Ronald L. Day - argued the cause for the petitioner

Facts of the case

In 1972, a federal district court issued an injunction ordering the Board of Education of Oklahoma City to implement the "Finger Plan," which bused black students to white schools. In 1977, the district court withdrew its enforcement of the plan, declaring that the Board had complied with the plan and reached "unitary" racial composition. In 1984, the Board passed the Student Reassignment Plan (SRP), which lessened busing in an effort to reduce travel time for black students. The group that originally protested segregation sought to restore the court-ordered desegregation, claiming that the school system again became segregated. The district court declined, but on appeal the United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit ruled that the injunction was never formally removed. On reconsideration, the district court again declined to restore the injunction because it found the original "Finger Plan" unworkable. The Court of Appeals reversed.

Question

If a federal court deems that an injunction to desegregate schools has achieved its goals, can that court permanently dissolve the injunction?

Media for Board of Education of Oklahoma City Public Schools v. Dowell

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - October 02, 1990 in Board of Education of Oklahoma City Public Schools v. Dowell

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - January 15, 1991 in Board of Education of Oklahoma City Public Schools v. Dowell

William H. Rehnquist:

I have the opinion of the Court to announce in No. 89-1080, Board of Education of Oklahoma City versus Dowell.

In this case, black students and their parents challenged the Oklahoma City School Board's decision to assign students in grades one through four to neighborhood school.

In earlier proceedings, Oklahoma City was found to have intentionally discriminated and to have created a dual system with separate schools for Blacks and Whites.

In 1972, the District Court entered a decree imposing a school desegregation plan on the Board of Education.

In 1977, finding that the school district had achieved unitary status, the court issued an order terminating the case.

In 1984, the board adapted the plan to reassign students in grades one through four to neighborhood schools.

This resulted in a number of previously desegregated schools returning to primarily one-race school.

The District Court held that this was a permissible action on the part of the board.

The Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit reversed the District Court.

It said that a desegregation decree remains in effect until a school district can show grievance wrong evoked by new and unforeseen contentions, and that the circumstances in Oklahoma City had not changed enough to justify modification of the 1972 decree.

In an opinion filed today with the clerk, we reverse the Court of Appeals and hold that its test for dissolving a desegregation decree is more stringent than is required by either this court's decision dealing with injunctions, or by the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

A school desegregation decree is not intended to operate forever for federal supervision of local systems always has been intended as a temporary measure to remedy past discrimination.

The legal justification for displacing local authority in such cases is a violation of the constitution, and dissolving such a decree after local authorities have operated in compliance with it for a reasonable period is proper.

We, therefore, reverse the judgment of the Court of Appeals.

Justice Marshall, joined by Justices Blackmun and Stevens, has filed a dissenting opinion.

Justice Souter took no part in the consideration or decision of this case.