September 12, 2014
Many of these rulings have directly affected state and local governments, forcing them to take actions to which they had been adamantly opposed. The Supreme Court doesn’t have any actual means of enforcing its decisions; it instead relies on the compliance of other areas of government at all levels to voluntarily comply.
But what happens when a government entity does not comply?
As those familiar with the Civil Rights Movement in the mid-20th Century may know, we actually experienced such an occurrence, and it was the Supreme Court’s single most significant ruling related to that movement: Brown v. Board of Education.
And the Court’s response to this refusal to respect its decision came down 56 years ago today in the form of Cooper v. Aaron. Although the issue in Cooper was not directly connected to a government entity refusing to abide by Brown, the Court went out of its way in the Cooper opinion to make it very clear that each state and local government was legally bound by the rulings of the Supreme Court.
The story of the case has a bit of a history behind it: after Brown held racial segregation in public schools to be unconstitutional, the Court, in a subsequent decision (Brown v. Board of Education II), ordered all lower federal courts to supervise the states’ progress in complying with Brown and desegregating their schools.
Shortly after, the city of Little Rock, Arkansas, formulated a plan to integrate its schools. Meanwhile, however, the state’s governor and legislature amended the state constitution to block desegregation.
The two opposing efforts eventually led to the conflict known as the “Little Rock Crisis,” in which nine African American students (the “Little Rock Nine”), who had enrolled in the all-white Little Rock Central High School in 1957, were physically prevented from entering the school. Initially, only segregationist private citizens were planning on forming the blockade, but Governor Orval Faubus mobilized the Arkansas National Guard to assist the protestors in their endeavor.
The sight of armed soldiers preventing the black students from entering the school was televised nationwide and roused those on both sides of the issue. On September 24, President Dwight D. Eisenhower, on the request of Little Rock Mayor Woodrow Wilson Mann, ordered the 101st Airborne Division of the United States Army to Little Rock to escort the Little Rock Nine into school (Eisenhower also federalized the Arkansas National Guard, taking authority away from Governor Faubus).
The issue was anything but resolved, unfortunately. The ordeal apparently made members of the Little Rock school board uncomfortable, since the board petitioned the federal court to allow a delay in its integration plan, citing to all of the problems that had arisen since the enrollment of the black students.
The federal court agreed, and ordered the black students be removed from the school and that the plan be delayed for two and a half years. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), on behalf of the Little Rock Nine, appealed the decision to the Eighth Circuit, which reversed the lower court. The appeals court held that the disruptions which provided the basis for the delay “were the direct result of general community opposition to integration in public schools in city” and were an insufficient basis and did not outweigh the constitutional rights of the enrolled black students.
The case was appealed to the Supreme Court, which agreed to review it. The Court issued a brief, per curiam opinion on September 12, 1958, affirming the Eighth Circuit’s judgment and ordering the school district to proceed with its desegregation plan immediately. The Court stated that it would release a full opinion supporting the judgment “in due course,” but that it wanted to release its judgment as soon as possible because of “the imminent commencement of the new school year.”
That opinion came just over two weeks later on September 29, in which the Court held that “[t]he constitutional rights of respondents are not to be sacrificed or yielded to the violence and disorder which have followed upon the actions of the Governor and Legislature,” placing the blame for the disruptions caused by the integration efforts on the state government, rather than on the students themselves.
The Court went further, however, and addressed the matter of actions of the governor and the legislature, in that the premise of these actions was “that they are not bound by [the Court’s] holding in the Brown case.” To this, it replied, “It is necessary only to recall some basic constitutional propositions which are settled doctrine.”
The Court went on to then give a brief lesson in constitutional law and the Supremacy Clause, reminding the state of Arkansas that the Court is the ultimate interpreter of the Constitution, and that “[n]o state legislator or executive or judicial officer can war against the Constitution without violating his undertaking to support it.”
In other words, the Court told the state of Arkansas that by refusing to obey Brown, they were violating their oaths of office to uphold the Constitution.
Ever since Cooper, no state has refused to follow a Supreme Court ruling – including Arkansas about Brown.