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Keyes v. Denver School District No. 1


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413 U.S. 189 (1973), argued 12 Oct. 1972, decided 21 June 1973 by vote of 7 to 1; Brennan for the Court, Burger concurring in result without opinion, separate statement by Douglas, Powell concurring in judgment and dissenting in part, Rehnquist in dissent, White not participating. In the first nonsouthern school desegregation case to receive plenary consideration, the Supreme Court held that a school district that “racially or ethnically” segregated one part of a large urban district created an arguably rebuttable presumption that similar segregation throughout the district was not “adventitious” and implied that wholesale, districtwide relief under Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg (1971) was not inappropriate (p. 208).

Although the opinion is tentative in tone and structured in terms of presumptions and future proceedings, Keyes was widely, and accurately, viewed as a green light for district-wide (if not necessarily interdistrict) desegregation of northern school districts. Justices William O. Douglas and Lewis Powell, in separate opinions, urged abandonment of the de jure/de facto distinction in school segregation cases, although Powell also suggested limits, and uniform guidelines, for Swann-type transportation decrees.

Justice William Rehnquist's dissent objected to the majority's use of evidentiary presumptions to extend Green v. County School Board (1968) to northern schools and argued further that Brown v. Board of Education (1954, 1955) required elimination of racial standards, not Green's achievement of an approved racial balance in public schools. The Keyes opinions ambiguously signaled Green's application to de facto segregation in the North but also indicated growing fissures within the Court over the issue. The Court's posture changed over time, and by 1995 Chief Justice Rehnquist had moved into the majority. In Missouri v. Jenkins (1995), a majority of the Court held that the lower federal courts in Missouri had improperly ordered the state to help pay for a showcase desegregation plan for Kansas City schools.

Dennis J. Hutchinson

Subjects: Law.


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