Freeman v. Pitts

PETITIONER: Robert R. Freeman et al.
RESPONDENT: Willie Eugene Pitts et al.
LOCATION: DeKalb County School System

DOCKET NO.: 89-1290
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1991-1993)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit

CITATION: 503 US 467 (1992)
ARGUED: Oct 07, 1991
DECIDED: Mar 31, 1992

Christopher A. Hansen - on behalf of the Respondents
Kenneth W. Starr - Solicitor General, Department of Justice, on behalf of the United States, as amicus curiae, supporting the Petitioners
Rex E. Lee - on behalf of the Petitioners

Facts of the case

In 1969, the United States District Court for the Northern District of Georgia ordered the DeKalb County School System (DCSS) to eliminate its previously legal racial segregation and its inequitable byproducts under judicial control. However, in 1986, DCSS officials filed a motion, intending for the District Court to declare the DCSS officially desegregated and withdraw supervision. Green v. School Board of New Kent County, outlines 6 categories in which a school district should achieve desegregation, and the District Court found that the DCSS was successful in 4 of these categories. Consequently, the court decided to relinquish control over the DCSS in these 4 areas, while it maintained control and mandated further improvements in the areas in which segregation still existed. Both the respondents, black schoolchildren and their parents, and the petitioners, the DCSS officials, appealed the District Court's decision, and the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit reversed it. The Court of Appeals argued that the District Court should have authority over the DCSS until it is fully desegregated in all 6 categories for several years.


1) Is a district court permitted to withdraw supervision of a school system that is under a court-ordered desegregation decree in the areas in which the school system complies with its decree if it does not comply in every area? 2) In the case of the DCSS, was the Court of Appeals correct in reversing the District Court's decision to withdraw supervision incrementally?

Media for Freeman v. Pitts

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - October 07, 1991 in Freeman v. Pitts

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - March 31, 1992 in Freeman v. Pitts

William H. Rehnquist:

The opinion of the Court in No. 89-1290, Freeman against Pitts will be announced by Justice Kennedy.

Anthony M. Kennedy:

This case comes to us on writ of certiorari to the Eleventh Circuit.

It involves a court order desegregation decree for the school system of DeKalb County, Georgia.

This school district has 73,000 students in kindergarten through high school, and it is the 32nd largest school district in the nation.

It has been subject to the supervision of the United States District Court for the Northern District of Georgia since 1969, when it was ordered to dismantle its segregated school system.

The school district implemented a neighborhood school plan that achieved substantial racial balance but soon an imbalance occurred.

The school district underwent a dramatic change in demographics.

What had been a Black student population of something less than 6% in 1969 became a 47% Black student population by 1986.

In that year the school district sought final dismissal of the case.

All concede that the district had not adjusted to the demographic changes so that there was substantial racial imbalance in student assignments to the various schools in the district.

Half of the Black students in the district attended schools that were over 90% Black.

Of the 22 high schools, five were over 90% Black while five were over 80% White.

The District Court found that the school district had achieved maximum practical desegregation between 1969 and 1986, and that the massive demographic changes that had led to residential segregation and that the school attendants' patterns were not caused by any action on the part of the school district.

The court found that the district had complied with its decree in four categories: student assignments, transportation, physical facilities, and extracurricular activities.

Accordingly, it ruled that it would order no further remedies in these areas.

The court went on to find that the school district was not in full compliance with reference to three other categories.

On of these was the assignment of teachers and principals to create a better racial balance.

The court retained jurisdiction over the case and ordered further remedies, but only as to those areas such as teacher and principal assignment where the school district was not in full compliance.

The Court of Appeals reversed.

It ruled that until the district was in full compliance in every respect, the Trial Court was obligated to keep control over all school operations.

The Court of Appeals reasoned that this would require further court orders to achieve racial balance in student assignments including remedies that might be, in the words of the Court of Appeals, administratively awkward, inconvenient, and bizarre such as busing.

We granted certiorari in the school district's petition.

We now reverse.

We hold that in the course of supervising school desegregation plans Federal Courts have the authority to relinquish supervision and control of school districts in incremental stages before full compliance has been achieved in every area of school operations.

Remedies are justified only in so far as they advance the ultimate objective of alleviating the initial constitutional violation.

Partial relinquishment of judicial control where justified by the facts of the case can be an important and significant step in fulfilling the District Court's duty to return the operations and control of school's to local authorities.

Next question is whether under the standards that we set forth the Court of Appeals erred in reversing the District Court's order for incremental withdrawal of supervision on the facts of this case.

Again, we find the Court of Appeals erred that there was racial imbalance in school attendance zones was not tantamount to a showing that the school district was in non-compliance 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 where racial imbalance has been caused by a constitutional violation.