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United States v. Fordice


Emphasized the Court's commitment to upholding the provisions of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

In 1848, the State of Mississippi established its first institution dedicated to higher education exclusively for white people. Alcorn State University, an agricultural college, was founded next in 1871 for the education of black youth. Creation of four new educational facilities for white students followed--Mississippi State University (1880), Mississippi University for Women (1885), University of Southern Mississippi (1912), and Delta State University (1925). In 1940 and 1950, the state established two more black universities, Jackson State University and Mississippi Valley State University.

During the mid-1950s, two Court decisions, Brown v. Board of Education (1954) and Brown v. Board of Education II (1955), held that "separate but equal" policies had no place in public education. Mississippi (like other states that operated racially discriminatory university systems) was ordered to end segregated education. Nonetheless, the state's policy of segregation continued. Only by order of the U.S. Supreme Court was the first black student admitted to the University of Mississippi in 1962.

Over the next 12 years, some white universities accepted several black students and Alcorn State University admitted five white students. In effect, the segregated public university system remained intact. In 1969, the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare (HEW) requested that Mississippi create a plan for dismantling its segregated university system. Four years later, the Board of Trustees of State Institutions of Higher Learning submitted their plan. The plan was rejected by HEW because it did not go far enough in the areas of student recruitment and it failed (in its intent) to comply with Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The board offered amendments but HEW found the modified plan unacceptable.

Private petitioners initiated a lawsuit in 1975 claiming that Mississippi's racially segregated educational system violated the Fifth, Ninth, Thirteenth, and Fourteenth Amendments and Title VI. Soon after that, the United States intervened by filing a complaint charging that state officials did not satisfy requirements under the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment and Title VI. For next 12 years, parties attempted to achieve a consensual resolution, but achieved limited success.

By 1981, the board presented a new program that identified the purpose of each public university. Schools were put in three categories: comprehensive, urban, and regional. The program classified the University of Mississippi, Mississippi State, and Southern Mississippi University as comprehensive, which meant that these universities had the most varied programs and offered graduate degrees. Delta State and Mississippi University for Women, together with Alcorn State and Mississippi Valley State University, had more limited programs devoted to undergraduate education. They were designated regional universities. According to location, Jackson State University was classified as urban. Nonetheless, 30 years after the Court's decision in Brown I and II, the situation in Mississippi's postsecondary educational institutions was largely unchanged. More than 99 percent of white students were in Mississippi's universities for whites, and 71 percent of black students attended Alcorn State, Mississippi Valley State, and Jackson State Universities. Finally, in 1987, HEW and the state concluded that they could not agree on whether Mississippi had achieved significant progress in removing its system of segregated schools. Accordingly, the lawsuit first initiated by the U.S. government proceeded to trial.

The district court moved to dismiss the case because state officials had sufficiently demonstrated they were making progress in eliminating segregation in the universities. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit affirmed the district court's decision. It was held that the State of Mississippi "adopted and implemented race-neutral policies for operating its universities," and that, under the new system, students had the right and freedom to attend their university of choice.

Dissatisfied with lower court rulings, the U.S. solicitor general presented the government's case before the U.S. Supreme Court in 1991. The government argued that the State of Mississippi did not fulfill its obligation to dismantle a dual system of higher education because vestiges of segregation remained vis-a-vis admission requirements and policies, duplication of programs, classification and assignment of missions, and financial support. For instance, automatic admission to three historically-white universities (HWUs) required a minimum score of 15 on the American College Test (ACT). Mississippi University for Women required a minimum score of 18 while historically-black universities (HBUs) required a 13 ACT score. Average ACT scores for white students were 18 and for blacks, 7; thus, whether by coincidence or by design, 70 percent of black students did not qualify for automatic acceptance into HWUs. (The Court took decided exception to the state's automatic acceptance policy-- since, according to the administering organization of the ACT, scores should not be used as a sole requirement for college admissions.) Moreover, the government pointed out that the state's system was plagued by "unnecessary program duplications." Duplications, part of the prior, segregated educational system, were consistent with the notion of "separate but equal," so continuation of such policies was discriminatory and traceable to the state's governance of the university system. In addition, the petitioner offered that two supposedly equal regional universities, Delta Mississippi State University (an HWU), and Mississippi Valley University (an HBU), had different-sized libraries (in fact, Valley's library was three times smaller than the Delta University library). The discrepancy was traceable to underfunding of Valley University. The petitioner reasoned that the chances of white students choosing the Valley University were therefore restrained; most students would prefer a university with a larger library.

The attorney for the respondent (the state of Mississippi) argued that Mississippi had dismantled segregated institutions by implementing anti-segregation policies which promoted "good faith," nondiscriminatory, race-neutral practices in student admissions, faculty hiring, and operation of campuses. As evidence of the success of the state's policies, counsel pointed out that one-third of all black students in Mississippi were at HWUs. Countering the government's claim that funding was disproportionate among universities, the respondent maintained that all universities had received the same level of funding for 30 years. He went on to point out that the most underfunded universities were the two "comprehensive" HWUs. Finally, counsel defended the apparent disparity in Mississippi's policy of "automatic admissions" between HWUs and HBUs by arguing that an ACT score of 15 was already too low to be considered a reasonable admissions obstacle since such a score was indicative of reading ability equivalent to high school level.

The Supreme Court justices unanimously agreed that the district court and the court of appeals failed to properly identify what constituted appropriate state action with respect to Title VI. Therefore, the Court vacated the ruling of the lower court and remanded the case back for further adjudication. Justices held that Mississippi's adoption and implementation of race-neutral admissions policies did not provide sufficient evidence that the state had completely abandoned a dual-university system. The Court felt that the state's "race-neutral" admission policy (of automatic entrance determined by ACT scores) was not an effective cure for a segregated educational system, especially since the criteria varied by institution. Moreover, in a system based on choice, many other factors (which the state failed to mitigate) besides admission policies affected student attendance. Such factors, like equal funding and facilities, non-duplicating academic concentrations, and disparities that indicated a "separate but equal" mentality, permeated the academic climate of the university system and were traceable to the state's prior segregation policies.

The Court concluded that discrimination was traceable to vestiges of the prior, segregated university system for several reasons. Discrepancy in admission standards suggested discrimination. Furthermore, lower courts (in their efforts to achieve consensus between HEW and the state) made little effort to mitigate or even justify differences in entrance requirements. University funding also hinted at practices which derived from Mississippi's period of active, educational segregation. Three HWUs, designated "flagship institutions," received more generous funding. Thus, those universities were able to initiate more advanced programs and to develop the broadest array of curricula. Justices also agreed with the opinion of the district court that a system of eight institutions of higher education (which were often duplicitous in curriculum offerings) was wasteful and irrational especially since several universities were less than 35 miles apart. (The Court declined to speculate whether closure of some institutions would have the effect of decreasing the discriminatory effects, and justices were uncertain whether such action was constitutionally required.)

Justice Scalia was the only member of the Court to file an opinion that dissented (but only in part). His primary concern was that, lacking definitive guidance from the Court, a "number of years of litigation-driven confusion and destabilization in university systems" would follow. Without specific, clear direction from the Court as to what steps should have been taken to achieve racial equality, lack of progress in equalizing educational opportunity would ensue as institutions and states grappled with the difficulty of reconciling the esoteric language of Title VI with academic administration and practice.

The majority of the Court held that the state of Mississippi failed to fulfill its obligation to dismantle its previously segregated system of postsecondary education. However, in rendering the decision that Mississippi must recraft its university system to more effectively desegregate, the Court only ruled on the correctness of litigants' arguments. Their decision lacked clear, defined legal parameters which states and academics could apply when authoring and administering desegregation policy. Nor did the Court specifically address which legal doctrine was most pertinent to development of a state policy that might address removal of a segregative system of higher education. Thus, while the Supreme Court reiterated its position on the inappropriateness of academic segregation and moved to underscore the importance of Title VII, the task of recrafting a desegregated university system remained a problem for educators and legislators to solve.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1989 to 1994United States v. Fordice - Significance, Further Readings