Board of Educ. v. Dowell,
498 U.S. 237 (1991)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Board of Educ. v. Dowell, 498 U.S. 237 (1991)

Board of Education of Oklahoma City Public Schools v. Dowell

No. 89-1080

Argued Oct. 2, 1990

Decided Jan. 15, 1991

498 U.S. 237


In 1972, finding that previous efforts had not been successful at eliminating de jure segregation, the District Court entered a decree imposing a school desegregation plan on petitioner Board of Education. In 1977, finding that the school district had achieved "unitary" status, the court issued an order terminating the case which respondents, black students and their parents, did not appeal. In 1984, the Board adopted its Student Reassignment Plan (SRP), under which a number of previously desegregated schools would return to primarily one-race status for the asserted purpose of alleviating greater busing burdens on young black children caused by demographic changes. The District Court thereafter denied respondents' motion to reopen the terminated case, holding, inter alia, that its 1977 unitariness finding was res judicata. The Court of Appeals reversed, holding that respondents could challenge the SRP because the school district was still subject to the desegregation decree, nothing in the 1977 order having indicated that the 1972 injunction itself was terminated. On remand, the District Court dissolved the injunction, finding, among other things, that the original plan was no longer workable, that the Board had complied in good faith for more than a decade with the court's orders, and that the SRP was not designed with discriminatory intent. The Court of Appeals again reversed, holding that a desegregation decree remains in effect until a school district can show "grievous wrong evoked by new and unforeseen conditions,'" United States v. Swift & Co., 286 U. S. 106, 286 U. S. 119, and that circumstances had not changed enough to justify modification of the 1972 decree.


1. Respondents may contest the District Court's order dissolving the 1972 injunction. Although respondents did not appeal from the court's 1977 order, that order did not dissolve the desegregation decree, and, since the order is unclear with respect to what it meant by "unitary" and the necessary result of that finding, it is too ambiguous to bar respondents

Page 498 U. S. 238

from challenging later action by the Board. If a desegregation decree is to be terminated or dissolved, the parties are entitled to a rather precise statement to that effect from the court. Pp. 498 U. S. 244-246.

2. The Court of Appeals' test for dissolving a desegregation decree is more stringent than is required either by this Court's decisions dealing with injunctions or by the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Pp. 498 U. S. 246-251.

(a) Considerations based on the allocation of powers within the federal system demonstrate that the Swift test does not provide the proper standard to apply to injunctions entered in school desegregation cases. Such decrees, unlike the one in Swift, are not intended to operate in perpetuity, federal supervision of local school systems always having been intended as a temporary measure to remedy past discrimination. The legal justification for displacement of local authority in such cases is a violation of the Constitution, and dissolution of a desegregation decree after local authorities have operated in compliance with it for a reasonable period is proper. Thus, in this case, a finding by the District Court that the school system was being operated in compliance with the Equal Protection Clause, and that it was unlikely that the Board would return to its former ways, would be a finding that the purposes of the desegregation litigation had been fully achieved, and no additional showing of "grievous wrong evoked by new and unforeseen conditions" would be required of the Board. Pp. 498 U. S. 246-248.

(b) The Court of Appeals also erred in relying on United States v. W.T. Grant Co. 345 U. S. 629, 345 U. S. 633, for the proposition that "compliance alone cannot become the basis for modifying or dissolving an injunction." That case did not involve the dissolution of an injunction, but the question whether an injunction should be issued in the first place in light of the wrongdoer's promise to comply with the law. Although a district court need not accept at face value a school board's profession that it will cease to intentionally discriminate in the future, the board's compliance with previous court orders is obviously relevant in deciding whether to modify or dissolve a desegregation decree, since the passage of time results in changes in board personnel and enables the court to observe the board's good faith in complying with the decree. The Court of Appeals' test would improperly condemn a school district to judicial tutelage for the indefinite future. Pp. 498 U. S. 248-249.

(c) In deciding whether the Board made a sufficient showing of constitutional compliance as of 1985, when the SRP was adopted, to allow the injunction to be dissolved, the District Court, on remand, should address itself to whether the Board had complied in good faith with the desegregation decree since it was entered, and whether, in light of every facet of school operations, the vestiges of past de jure segregation had been eliminated to the extent practicable. If it decides that the Board

Page 498 U. S. 239

was entitled to have the decree terminated, the court should proceed to decide whether the Board's decision to implement the SRP complies with appropriate equal protection principles. Pp. 498 U. S. 249-251.

890 F.2d 1483 (CA10 1989), reversed and remanded.

REHNQUIST, C.J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which WHITE, O'CONNOR, SCALIA, and KENNEDY, JJ., joined. MARSHALL, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which BLACKMUN and STEVENS, JJ., joined. SOUTER, J., took no part in the consideration or decision of the case.

Page 498 U. S. 240

Primary Holding

It is not unconstitutional to end a federal school desegregation order if it had succeeded in eliminating past discrimination and had been followed in good faith.


A federal district court ordered that the Oklahoma City Board of Education implement a school desegregation plan as provided by the court, since segregation had not been effectively eliminated by the Board. Five years later, the court terminated the case on the basis of a finding that the school district had achieved the plan's goals to the extent practicable. The African-American students and their parents did not appeal this order at the time.

Seven years after the order had been terminated, the Board provided that some of the previously desegregated schools would become one-race schools again in order to provide more efficient busing for African-American students, who were clustered in certain areas because of demographic changes. The African-American families were prevented from reopening the terminated case, but on appeal a court ruled that the previous desegregation decree would be reinstated because circumstances had not sufficiently changed since it was issued. The appellate court held that the school district would need to show that new and unforeseen conditions would lead to a grievous wrong unless the court order was struck down.



  • William Hubbs Rehnquist (Author)
  • Byron Raymond White
  • Sandra Day O'Connor
  • Antonin Scalia
  • Anthony M. Kennedy

Courts may properly dissolve a desegregation order after local authorities have complied with it for a meaningful period of time, since it is appropriate to return control of public school systems to local governments. Orders are limited to the purpose of redressing past intentional discrimination and should not extend beyond the time needed to fulfill that purpose.


  • Thurgood Marshall (Author)
  • Harry Andrew Blackmun
  • John Paul Stevens

The possibility that school districts may return to one-race schools is a serious threat that is based on historical practices of segregation. The court decree should remain in effect as long as it is feasible to eliminate these vestiges of past segregation, and in this case it is feasible to prevent a return to one-race schools. Since the purpose of the decree has not yet been fulfilled, and over half of the district's schools already have been segregated again, the decree should be reinstated.


  • David H. Souter (Author)

Case Commentary

This decision appears to value the importance of allowing local authorities to operate school districts. There is also a pragmatic recognition that racial balance in its most precise form may not be realistically attainable, so authorities should be held accountable only for good-faith attempts to redress earlier discrimination.

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