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Board of Education of Oklahoma City Public Schools v. Dowell

Citation. 498 U.S. 237, 111 S. Ct. 630, 112 L. Ed. 2d 715, 1991 U.S.
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Brief Fact Summary.

The Petitioner, Board of Education of Oklahoma City (Petitioner), sought dissolution of the District Court-imposed school desegregation plan.

Synopsis of Rule of Law.

District Court authority over school districts extends only until the districts in question have complied with the injunctions long enough to reasonably redress past segregation.


In 1972, the District Court imposed a desegregation plan for the Oklahoma City Public School System. In 1985, the Board of Education adopted a new plan (“SRP”) for assigning students to schools. The SRP was not discriminatory on the basis of race. The Petitioner was sued by the Respondents, Dowell, et al. (Respondents), alleging that the District Court injunction was still in effect. The District Court ruled that the desegregation decree was dissolved. After a reversal by the Court of Appeals, the Supreme Court of the United States (Supreme Court) granted certiorari.


Should the desegregation decree be dissolved as of the time the SRP was enacted?


Case reversed and remanded for further review.
Chief Justice William Rehnquist (J. Rehnquist) notes that the lower courts have been inconsistent with their definition of a “unitary” school system. Some courts defined unitary as meaning a district had removed all vestiges of segregation. Other courts defined unitary as meaning that a district has currently desegregated its assignment policies. It is clear that under the latter definition, a district may still maintain some vestiges of past discrimination.
J. Rehnquist further states that a District Court’s authority to enjoin a school district only extends to the point necessary for the district to remedy past discrimination to the extent practicable, as long as the district was making a good faith effort to remedy the situation.


Justice Thurgood Marshall (J. Marshall) notes that under the SRP, over half of Oklahoma City’s schools have a racial component of at least 90% white or 90% non-white students. J. Marshall finds this to be persisting segregation and would leave the decree in place.


The majority’s primary concern is for returning control of the school districts to local authorities. They balance the needs of desegregating the schools with the knowledge that not all segregation is de jure and perfect racial balance is just not possible in some situations. Reasonable compliance to correct past wrongs is the standard put forward.

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