Bradley v. School Board of City of Richmond


Bradley v. School Board of City of Richmond involved two different decisions by the Supreme Court of the United States. In Bradley I (1973), more properly known as School Board, City of Richmond v. State Board of Education, the Court summarily affirmed a decision by the Fourth Circuit, which reversed an early order calling for an interdistrict remedy to eliminate school segregation. In the second case, Bradley v. School Board of City of Richmond (1972, 1974), which became known as Bradley II when it reached the Supreme Court, the Court upheld an award of attorney fees to the plaintiff parents.

Bradley I


Bradley I was the result of extensive litigation to bring about the desegregation of the schools in Richmond, Virginia. The Fourth Circuit affirmed that an interdistrict remedy was inappropriate. Chesterfield and Henrico counties, which were adjacent to the city of Richmond, challenged a federal trial court’s joining them to the suit in order to effectuate a unitary school system.
The Fourth Circuit began by noting that in Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education (1972), the Supreme Court limited the remedies that the judiciary could use to achieve unitary systems. The court pointed out that previously, the board agreed that its freedom of choice plan to desegregate the schools was insufficient to achieve its goal. In addition, a federal trial court ruled that the third plan, an interdistrict remedy developed by the city, would eliminate racially identifiable schools to the extent possible in the city. Subsequently, the adjoining counties were added to the suit.
As part of its judgment, the Fourth Circuit reviewed research on the percentages of Black and White students in each school that would have indicated the achievement of a unitary system. The court thus observed that joining the neighboring counties to the Richmond district would have been tantamount to imposing a quota by limiting the number of spots at some schools available to minority children. At the same time, the court could not uncover any evidence that the establishment of the school district lines 100 years earlier was racially motivated. Also, the court found no evidence of an interaction among the districts to keep the adjoining school systems White by confining Black students to Richmond.
The Fourth Circuit ruled that requiring the consolidation of the three school systems would have ignored Virginia’s history and traditions with regard to the establishment and operation of schools. The court thought that such action would also have invalidated legislative acts that created the public school structure currently in place in Virginia. If the court were to ignore the history and tradition that created the public school system in Virginia, then the court feared that it would create budgeting and financing nightmares.
Further, the court examined the Tenth Amendment, which reserves to the states the authority to structure their internal governance, including schools. Absent evidence of a constitutional violation in the establishment of the school districts, the Fourth Circuit maintained that remedy was beyond the authority of the trial court. The vestiges of segregation, in the opinion of the circuit court, had been eliminated in the City of Richmond. An equally divided Supreme Court affirmed in a one sentence per curiam order.

Bradley II


Bradley II came about as the result of an award of attorneys’ fees. The trial court had awarded the plaintiffs attorney fees for the costs they incurred in the litigation. However, the Fourth Circuit reversed in favor of the school board. While Bradley II was pending, Congress enacted Section 718 of the Emergency School Aid Act as part of the Education Amendments of 1972. This amendment allowed the award of attorneys’ fees when appropriate in desegregation cases. Under this law, courts can apply the law as it exists at the time that they render judgments, even if infractions occur before relevant statutes come into effect, as long as doing so would not result in injustice or violate the laws involved.
When Bradley II reached the Supreme Court, the justices noted that a reading of the act’s legislative history seemed to allow an award of attorney fees in this situation. In fact, the Court noted that since 1968, the board had been remiss in its duty to create a unitary school system. To this end, the Court decided that it was pertinent that the board was aware that it could have been liable for attorney fees. Therefore, the Court reasoned that Section 718 allowed the award of attorney fees when it is appropriate to do so pursuant to the entry of a final order in a school desegregation case. The Court explained that fees could be awarded for the services that attorneys provided before the law was enacted where the propriety of a fee award was pending resolution on appeal. The Court added that the award was appropriate, because it was not necessary for a fee award to be made simultaneously with entry of a desegregation order.
Bradley I and II illustrate that because it took a long time for school boards to realize that they had a duty to effectuate unitary school systems in an expeditious manner, those that failed to do so were liable to pay the costs of litigation. Aside from the historical interest, it is worth noting that deliberate acts by school boards to delay remedying segregation when complying with known legal requirements can result in the unnecessary expenditure of funds for legal fees and awards of attorney fees.
J. Patrick Mahon

See also Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka and Equal Educational Opportunities; Civil Rights Movement; Federalism and the Tenth Amendment; Fourteenth Amendment; Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education
Legal Citations
  • Bradley v. School Board of City of Richmond, 462 F.2d 1058 (4th Cir. 1972), 416 U.S. 696 (1974).
  • School Board, City of Richmond v. State Board of Education, 412 U.S. 92 (1973).
  • Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education, 402 U.S. 1 (1972).