Bolling v. Sharpe


In Bolling v. Sharpe (1954), African American junior high school students challenged the denial of their requests for admission to all-White schools in Washington, D.C. The case was linked to similar cases in the landmark Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (1954) case, but it raised particular issues, because the federal government rather than the states was being accused of discrimination. The Supreme Court ruled that the federal government could not be held to a lesser standard in this important issue of liberty.

Facts of the Case


The schools that the African American students attended were in poor physical condition and lacked adequate educational materials. The students, who were initially led by Thurgood Marshall’s mentor Charles Hamilton Houston, disputed the validity of segregation in the public schools of the District of Columbia. When Houston became ill, he was replaced by James Nabrit, a colleague from Howard University.
The students, led by Nabrit, continued their charge that the segregation practiced in the District of Columbia deprived them of due process of law under the Fifth Amendment; because the Fifth, rather than the Fourteenth applies to the federal government, the plaintiffs proceeded under it. School officials barred the African American students’ admission to the White public schools solely because of their race.
In their quest to gain admission, the African American students filed suit in the federal trial court for the District of Columbia. After the court dismissed their complaint in light of a recent ruling that segregated schools were constitutional in the District of Columbia, Nabrit filed an appeal. Due to the importance of the constitutional question presented, the Supreme Court granted a writ of certiorari before the Court of Appeals rendered its judgment. The Court was interested in considering the Bolling case along with the four other segregation cases already filed. The other segregation cases and Bolling were linked in the oral arguments under the now famous Brown.

The Court’s Ruling


In Brown, the Supreme Court held that the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment prohibits the states from maintaining racially segregated public schools. Yet, the legal question in the District of Columbia was somewhat different, as the Fifth Amendment, which is applicable in the District of Columbia, does not contain an Equal Protection Clause like that of the Fourteenth Amendment. To be sure, the Fourteenth Amendment applies only to the states.
In its analysis, the Supreme Court pointed out that the concepts of equal protection and due process both have foundations in the American ideal of fairness and are not mutually exclusive. In order to avoid future confusion, the High Court definitively stated that these two concepts are not always interchangeable. “That is, ‘equal protection of the laws’ is a more explicit safeguard of prohibited unfairness than ‘due process of law.’ But, as this Court recognized, discrimination may be so unjustifiable as to be violative of due process” (p. 499).
The Supreme Court noted that classifications based solely on race must be carefully scrutinized. With respect to this issue, the Court made an interesting reference to, but did not specifically mention, Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), which not only made popular the principle “separate but equal” but supposedly prohibited discrimination. Plessy is viewed as promoting discrimination today even though it was not regarded as such at the time.
To continue the line of reasoning, the Supreme Court noted that the term liberty means more than mere freedom from bodily restraint. To this end, the justices were of the opinion that liberty under law extends to the full range of conduct that an individual is free to pursue absent restriction, unless there is a connection to a proper governmental objective. As segregation in public education is not rationally related to any proper governmental objective, the Court found that it burdened African American students in the District of Columbia in such a way that it constituted an arbitrary deprivation of their liberty in violation of the Due Process Clause.
The Supreme Court concluded that just as the Constitution prohibits the states from maintaining racially segregated public schools, it would be unconscionable for the same Constitution to ask less of the federal government, in this case in its role of administering schools in the District of Columbia. Thus, the Court decided that racial segregation in the public schools of the District of Columbia denied African American students their rights under due process of law as guaranteed by the Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution.
Mark A. Gooden

See also Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka; Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka and Equal Educational Opportunities; Marshall, Thurgood
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