Today in 1974: SCOTUS strikes down intercity busing as remedy to school segregation

July 25, 2014

Today in Legal HistoryThe seminal civil rights ruling Milliken v. Bradley was decided 40 years ago today, on July 25, 1974.

The case has its beginnings in a plan by the city of Detroit to redraw school district boundary lines as a means of addressing school segregation.  The schools of Detroit had become segregated as a result of the Great Migration, which was a mass exodus of African Americans from the rural South to Northern and Western urban centers, and the consequent “white flight” of the city’s white population to the suburbs.

In response to Detroit’s plan, the Michigan State Legislature intervened by enacting Act 48, which specifically prohibited implementation of the desegregation plan.  The Detroit Branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), along with individual parents and students, filed suit against the state, arguing that Act 48 violated the Fourteenth Amendment.

On remand from two prior appeals, the district court held that the system was an illegally segregated one, pointing to a large record of statutorily “color-blind” actions by the state that had the intent and effect of reinforcing school segregation.

The court of appeals affirmed, citing to the extensive record of state actions that resulted in further entrenching segregation.  The court of appeals, like the district court, ruled that the state of Michigan’s actions violated the Fourteenth Amendment, citing to 1954’s Brown v. Board of Education.

When the case reached the Supreme Court, however, it was reversed 5 to 4.

The majority opinion, written by Chief Justice Warren Burger and joined by Justices Stewart, Blackmun, Powell, and Rehnquist, held that since there was no deliberate policy of segregation engaged in by the school districts (as opposed to the state’s Department of Education), Brown and the Fourteenth Amendment offered no remedy.  The majority further elucidated the distinction between the form of segregation that the courts could remedy, de jure, and that which they could not, de facto.

De jure segregation is that which is part of the law in some form or another; de facto segregation arises when the segregation is found in the effect of the law.  Without the presence of de jure segregation, the majority argued, courts are powerless to remedy de facto segregation.

The dissenters disagreed, however, arguing that the majority intentionally turned a blind eye to “the purposeful, intentional, massive, de jure segregation of the Detroit city schools.”

Despite the dissent’s lengthy opposition to the majority opinion, however, the Milliken decision has more or less set the standard for state racial discrimination cases since:  Courts have been reluctant to remedy alleged patterns and systems of discrimination if no specific discriminatory intent was expressed in the passing of the law or its explicit text.

The ruling also marked the beginning of the end for court-ordered busing programs.  The Supreme Court struck down the district court’s plan to bus white students from the suburbs to Detroit and vice versa, instead holding that such a busing plan must be limited to the city boundaries of Detroit.  However, the plan only served to further accelerate “white flight” into the suburbs, further segregating the Detroit area.

Those same school districts are just as segregated today, if not even more so, since no remedy to the situation has presented itself that wouldn’t run afoul of the Supreme Court’s holding in Milliken.

Aside from the issue of school desegregation, the Milliken rationale has stymied other attempts at correcting alleged state-sanctioned racial inequalities because the official policies or laws were racially “colorblind” on their face.

The case was discussed by the Supreme Court once again as recently as 2007 in Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1, in which the Court struck down voluntary school desegregation plans by Seattle, Washington and Louisville, Kentucky.

If the issue of school desegregation comes before the Court again in the future, we can be sure that Milliken will play a role in the opinion of the majority.