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Milliken v. Bradley


Many believe that Milliken v. Bradley helped to cause a racial schism between urban school districts and suburban school districts. Many point to this case as an impetus for "white flight" from the cities to the suburbs. Others believe that due to the results of Milliken v. Bradley, there was more urban school financial aid for equipment and supplies that might not have been otherwise available. It's also believed that this decision helped to create "headstart"-type programs.

Through the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan, Detroit school system parents, their children and others instituted a class action suit against various state and school district officials seeking relief from alleged de jure racial segregation in the Detroit public school system.

The defendants named in the district court included Michigan's Governor, the state's Attorney General, the State Board of Education, the State Superintendent of Public Instruction, and the Detroit City Board of Education and its members. Also included were Detroit's present and former superintendents of schools.

One of the main points here is the distinction made by the courts between de jure and de facto segregation. De facto means, "by the facts." De facto segregation is said to occur when a school district is segregated for other reasons besides official policies and decisions that, in effect, are discriminatory. If, for instance, all the children in the same school were of the same skin color because it was their closest school, that would be de facto segregation. De jure means, "by law." As opposed to de facto segregation, de jure segregation "is segregation caused by school officials' decisions to either create or maintain racial segregation." The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan ruled that the defendants had set policies and made decisions that resulted in the de jure segregation of the Detroit school system.

The district court then required two desegregation plans. One plan involved a solution to be found within the city. The other plan involved desegregation through the tri-county metropolitan area, even though these suburban school districts were not involved and no claim was made that they had committed any constitutional violations. The only input allowed to some of the suburban school districts was that they could advise the court "as to the propriety and form of any metropolitan desegregation plan."

The district court then ruled that it could consider a desegregation plan that involved the suburban school districts even though it had not been established that these school districts had not violated the Constitution. The court further ruled that solutions that involved only Detroit were inadequate since desegregation within the school district could not result in a "racial balance" that represented the "racial composition" of the metropolitan Detroit area. In fact, said the district court, this sort of remedy would only highlight the separateness of Detroit from its surrounding neighbors, with many of the schools having an African American population of 75 to 90 percent.

Therefore, said the district court, effective desegregation could only be accomplished through an inter-district remedy that included 53 suburban school districts combined with Detroit. A panel was appointed to prepare a plan. An interim plan was devised for the upcoming school year in the meantime.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit confirmed that de jure segregation existed in the Detroit school district and held that a constitutionally adequate system of school desegregation could not be established inside the Detroit school district. So it was necessary to devise a multi-district metropolitan plan since, in essence, the state was not only responsible for the de jure segregation, but also held authority over local school districts.

However, the court of appeals also decreed that the suburban school districts which might be affected by a multi-district desegregation plan had the right to be heard "with respect to the scope and implementation of such a remedy." The court of appeals also voided a district court's order regarding the purchase of school buses, "subject to the District Court's right to consider reimposing the order at an appropriate time."

When the U.S. Supreme Court decided to hear this case it overturned the multi-district solution and ruled that the solution must be found within Detroit's city limits. Justice Burger's opinion conveyed the views of five Supreme Court justices, holding that it was improper for a federal court to order a multi-district solution to a single district de jure segregation problem unless it could be established that by committing unconstitutional acts resulting in racial discrimination, the other districts had caused inter-district segregation. The other test was being able to determine that school district lines had been drawn with race a primary factor.

Since neither of these factored into the Detroit case, the remedy needed to be sought within the city of Detroit only, even though it would not result in reflecting the "racial composition of the metropolitan area as a whole." The Court also felt that a remedy involving the metropolitan Detroit area would wreak havoc with the state's public education infrastructure that involved local control. Also, there would be a wide range of problems having to do with such factors as administration, financing, and mass transportation of students.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1973 to 1980Milliken v. Bradley - Significance, Busing: Was It Worth It?, Further Readings