Missouri v. Jenkins

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515 U.S. 70 (1995), argued 11 Jan. 1995, decided 12 June 1995 by vote of 5 to 4; Rehnquist for the Court, O’Connor and Thomas concurring, Souter dissenting, joined by Stevens, Ginsburg, and Breyer, Ginsburg dissenting separately. The case involved school desegregation litigation begun eighteen years earlier in the name of Kalima Jenkins, one of several black students in the Kansas City, Missouri, school district. First the federal district court in Kansas City and then the Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit approved a desegregation plan that required the state of Missouri to shoulder more than one-half of the $1.3 billion spent to improve the once-segregated school system. The remedies involved, among other actions, establishing so-called magnet schools, lowering class sizes, drawing students from the surrounding white suburbs, and increasing taxes.

The state of Missouri had failed in its 1990 challenge to overturn the tax increases, but a year later it went back to the Supreme Court seeking an end to the order mandating the other actions. Against the wishes of the school district, the state argued that all vestiges of the formerly segregated system had been eliminated. The federal district court refused to lift its order, and a badly divided Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals agreed. The opinions from the Eighth Circuit indicated, without saying so explicitly, that the remedies would remain in place until standardized student achievement scores had improved to the level of national standards. Missouri argued that such a standard was “outcomes” based and entirely beyond any constitutional requirement to provide equal opportunity under the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

The Supreme Court sided with Missouri. In his opinion for a bare majority of the Court, Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist found that the federal district court in Kansas City and the Eighth Circuit Court had used improper guidelines to justify their sweeping orders. The majority struck particularly hard at that part of the plan that aimed to bring white students from the suburbs into the Kansas City schools. The tactics used by the lower federal courts, the high court concluded, were little more than a subterfuge to get around earlier court decisions that barred such interdistrict remedies. Rehnquist also rejected the lower court's rationale for the use of standardized test scores to mark the progress of the district's students. “This is clearly not the appropriate test to be applied,” Rehnquist wrote, since many of the variables influencing poor achievement were beyond the control of the school district (p. 101).

Particularly notable among the concurring opinions was that of Justice Clarence Thomas, an African-American. Thomas issued a deeply personal opinion that directly challenged the lower court's assertion that a largely black district should solve its student quality problems by attracting more white students.

The dissenters were equally adamant, led by Justices David Souter and Ruth Bader Ginsburg. The former argued that the poor state of the segregated schools had originally driven whites from the city and that the state should be made to take actions that would help to bring them back. The latter complained that “[g]iven the deep, inglorious history of segregation in Missouri, to curtail desegregation at this time and in this manner is an action at once too swift and too soon” (p. 176).


Subjects: Law.

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