Washington v. Seattle Sch. Dist. No. 1
458 U.S. 457 (1982)

Annotate this Case

U.S. Supreme Court

Washington v. Seattle Sch. Dist. No. 1, 458 U.S. 457 (1982)

Washington v. Seattle School District No. 1

No. 81-9

Argued March 22, 1982

Decided June 30, 1982

458 U.S. 457

Syllabus

In 1978, appellee Seattle School District No. 1 (District) enacted the so-called Seattle Plan for desegregation of its schools. The plan makes extensive use of mandatory busing. Subsequently, a statewide initiative (Initiative 350) was drafted to terminate the use of mandatory busing for purposes of racial integration in the public schools of the State of Washington. The initiative prohibits school boards from requiring any student to attend a school other than the one geographically nearest or next nearest to his home. It sets out a number of broad exceptions to this requirement, however: a student may be assigned beyond his neighborhood school if he requires special educational programs, or if the nearest or next nearest school is overcrowded or unsafe, or if it lacks necessary physical facilities. These exceptions permit school boards to assign students away from their neighborhood schools for virtually all of the nonintegrative purposes required by their educational policies. After the initiative was passed at the November, 1978, general election, the District, together with two other districts, brought suit against appellant State in Federal District Court, challenging the constitutionality of Initiative 350 under the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The District Court held the initiative unconstitutional on the ground, inter alia, that it established an impermissible racial classification in violation of Hunter v. Erickson,393 U. S. 385, and Lee v. Nyquist, 318 F.Supp. 710 (WDNY), summarily aff'd, 402 U.S. 935, "because it permits busing for non-racial reasons but forbids it for racial reasons." The court permanently enjoined implementation of the initiative's restrictions. The Court of Appeals affirmed.

Held: Initiative 350 violates the Equal Protection Clause. Pp. 458 U. S. 467-487.

(a) When a State allocates governmental power nonneutrally, by explicitly using the racial nature of a decision to determine the decisionmaking process, its action "places special burdens on racial minorities within the governmental process," Hunter v. Erickson, 393 U.S. at 393 U. S. 391, thereby "making it more difficult for certain racial and religious minorities [than for other members of the community] to achieve legislation that is in their interest." Id. at 393 U. S. 395. Such a structuring of the political

Page 458 U. S. 458

process is "no more permissible than [is] denying [members of a racial minority] the vote, on an equal basis with others." Id. at 393 U. S. 391. Pp. 458 U. S. 467-470.

(b) Initiative 350 must fall because it does "not attemp[t] to allocate governmental power on the basis of any general principle," Hunter v. Erickson, 393 U.S. at 393 U. S. 395, but instead uses the racial nature of an issue to define the governmental decisionmaking structure, thus imposing substantial and unique burdens on racial minorities. The initiative worked a major reordering of the State's educational decisionmaking process. Before adoption of the initiative, the power to determine what programs would most appropriately fill a school district's educational needs -- including programs involving student assignment and desegregation -- was committed to the local board's discretion. After passage of Initiative 350, authority over all but one of these areas remained in the local board's hands. By placing power over desegregative busing at the state level, the initiative thus "differentiates between the treatment of problems involving racial matters and that afforded other problems in the same area." Lee v. Nyquist, 318 F.Supp. at 718. And Initiative 350 works something more than the "mere repeal" of a desegregation law by the political entity that created it. It burdens all future attempts to integrate Washington schools by lodging decisionmaking authority over the question at a new and remote level of government. This makes the enactment of racially beneficial legislation uniquely difficult, and therefore imposes direct and undeniable burdens on minority interests. Pp 458 U. S. 470-484.

(c) Contrary to appellants' suggestion, Hunter v. Erickson was not effectively overruled by Washington v. Davis,426 U. S. 229, and Arlington Heights v. Metropolitan Housing Dev. Corp.,429 U. S. 252. While Washington v. Davis and Arlington Heights considered classifications facially unrelated to race, Hunter -- like this case -- involved an attempt to use explicitly racial criteria to define the community's decisionmaking structure. In so doing, the legislation at issue there directly and invidiously curtailed "the operation of those political processes ordinarily to be relied upon to protect minorities." United States v. Carolene Products Co.,304 U. S. 144, 304 U. S. 152-153, n. 4. Hunter's principle -- that meaningful and unjustified distinctions based on race are impermissible -- is still vital. Pp. 458 U. S. 484-487.

633 F.2d 1338, affirmed.

BLACKMUN, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BRENNAN, WHITE, MARSHALL, and STEVENS, JJ., joined. POWELL, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which BURGER, C.J., and REHNQUIST and O'CONNOR, JJ., joined, post, p. 458 U. S. 488.

Page 458 U. S. 459

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