Oklahoma City Board of Education v. Dowell

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111 S.Ct. 630 (1991), argued 2 Oct. 1990, decided 15 Jan. 1991 by vote of 5 to 3; Rehnquist for the Court, Marshall, joined by Blackmun and Stevens, in dissent, Souter not participating. African-American parents and their children brought this suit in 1961 to challenge the racial segregation in Oklahoma City's public schools. The federal district court terminated the case in 1977, declaring that the previously “dual” (intentionally segregated) school district had achieved “unitary” status. In 1985, claiming demographic changes, the school district curtailed busing and reassigned students to neighborhood schools. As a result, thirty-three of the district's sixty-four elementary schools became racially identifiable, with more than 90 percent of their student body of one race. The plaintiffs sought to reopen the case.

The Supreme Court emphasized that court-ordered remedies were always intended to be temporary and not meant to operate in perpetuity. Calling for greater deference to local authorities, the Court held that a desegregation remedy should be terminated when the school district had complied in good faith with all court orders for a reasonable time and when vestiges of past discrimination had been eliminated to the extent practicable. This determination must consider every facet of operation of the schools, including student assignments, faculty, staff, transportation, extracurricular activities, and facilities.

There are more than five hundred school desegregation cases pending in federal courts nationwide, some for more than thirty years. This decision thus could signal a whole new body of case law establishing procedures for ending these lawsuits and the federal judiciary's involvement in school desegregation issues.

Thomas E. Baker

Subjects: Law.

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