Summary of Milliken v. Bradley
Citation: 418 U.S. 717 (1974)
Relevant Facts: Two decades after the Supreme Court declared that “separate but equal" schools offended the Constitution, Respondent Bradley and others brought a class action alleging that Detroit schools produced de facto segregation. Bradley joined with other students and parents to argue that schools, in order to comply with constitutional requirements, were required to do more than pursue a policy of nondiscrimination; rather, the plaintiffs claimed that schools must actually provide integrated and equal educational environments. Bradley and the other plaintiffs brought their claims against Michigan Governor William Milliken, and others, arguing that school segregation as the result of ostensibly race-neutral policies were nonetheless discriminatory as a consequence of deliberate government action. For example, Bradley argued that busing policies transported black student past predominately white schools to other, predominately black schools. Furthermore, they alleged that the school districts were required to produce racially integrated student bodies throughout the school system rather than adopt seemingly neutral policies and school districts that resulted in schools largely segregated on the basis of race. Bradley also argued that housing policies and other factors contributed to the problem of racially segregated schools. At trial, the District Court agreed and ordered immediate desegregation. The District Court proceedings were complicated by the wide-ranging effect of the initial order and the joinder of additional schools not originally involved in the litigation. However, the Court order desegregation to proceed and directed the district to acquire buses for the purpose of pursuing school integration. The Court of Appeals affirmed in part, agreeing that adequate evidence of discrimination existed, but vacating the order to acquire school buses and remanding the case so that all potentially affected districts could be heard on the desegregation plans. The Court of Appeals noted that the broad remedial measures suggested were necessary in light of the nature of the problem and necessity for an adequate remedy. Governor Milliken and the other defendants appealed.
Issue: Whether the racial composition of the schools at issue amounts to racial segregation in violation of constitutionally guaranteed rights to equal protection? Whether the District Court had the authority to craft a remedy to the problem that encompassed the operations of school districts that were not parties to the litigation and had not been presented with the opportunity to be heard?
Holding: No, the policies at issue here do not violate constitutional guarantees as Court-ordered desegregation does not guarantee any particular racial composition in public schools but instead bans intentionally discriminatory policies. The district court judge, even if he had been correct on the underlying claims, exceeded his authority by adopting an overly broad remedy that significantly diminished the local control of schools without affording those schools the opportunity to be heard.
Reasoning: Chief Justice Burger delivered the opinion of the Court. First, the majority explained that the District Court erred in its standard for a remedial plan, attempting to foster a school system that had pupils in each school and class proportional to the racial composition of the area as a whole. Rather than guaranteeing any specific racial composition, Chief Justice Burger explained that the Court’s desegregation decisions required only non-discrimination. Next, the majority explained that the broad remedy suggested here violated the traditionally local control of school districts. While racial segregation may require inter-district remedies for an appropriate case, the trial judge here effectively created a new, huge school district from over fifty formerly independent districts. The majority noted the obvious logistical problems with such a consolidation before concluding that the suggested remedy upset the balance of local control in schools that is part of a long-standing tradition. Furthermore, in order to administer the suggested remedial plan, the district judge would effectively become a school superintendent for the new district, a task for which judges are ill-suited and a new power that judges are not afforded. Finally, Chief Justice Burger explained that in order to craft a remedy, the Court must first identify violations of constitutional rights. In this case, there was no evidence that the out-lying school districts encompassed in the district court’s order had engaged in prohibited practices. Even assuming that the de facto segregation of schools within Detroit resulted from constitutionally impermissible government action, the District Court lacked the authority to address the racial makeup of one set of schools but ordering inter-district desegregation plans that involved schools that were not parties to the litigation and had not been afforded the opportunity to be heard on the matters properly before the Court.
Concurrence: Justice Stewart concurred with the majority, writing separately to clarify his interpretation of the case in light of strongly worded dissenting opinions. In Justice Stewart’s view, the District Court erred if for no other reason that the remedy was so out of proportion to the perceived constitutional violations. Furthermore, he agreed that the plan urged following trial would trample traditionally local rights while assuming for a district judge duties neither traditionally assigned nor capable of easy judicial management.
Dissent: Justice Douglas dissented, pointing out that the issues presently before the Court were all prior to approval of any particular remedy. Furthermore, Justice Douglas argued that the district court was correct in holding that the state-sponsored scheme was discriminatory in that it resulted from deliberate policies that produced segregated schools. Furthermore, he pointed out that given the level of state control in this case the fact that the predominately white schools and the predominately black schools were in different districts within the same metropolitan area was not dispositive. Justice White dissented, as he concluded that the Court could hardly question the factual findings below. Furthermore, he argued that the majority would allow states to insulate themselves from Fourteenth Amendment challenges to segregated schools merely by placing schools in different districts that the majority here concluded were off-limits to a judicially crafted remedial order. Justice Marshall dissented. He argued that the slow and steady progress of racial equality would be eroded by the holding here, whereby school children could be subjected to racially segregated school systems without any meaningful remedy. Similar to Justice White, Justice Marshall argued that district lines were artificial barriers and no meaningful analysis of the equal protection issues presented could withhold consideration of breaking down those artificial barriers to craft a remedy proportional to the proven wrongs.
Conclusion: Equal Protection in the context of school desegregation does not guarantee any particular makeup of a school’s student body, but instead requires that schools adopt non-discriminatory policies. Furthermore, in crafting remedies to address violations, district judges must first establish constitutional violations within all of the affected districts and craft remedies capable of judicial enforcement.