Keyes v. School District No. 1, Denver, Colorado

The U.S. Supreme Court’s 1973 decision in Keyes v. School District No. 1, Denver, Colorado, has had a profound and lasting effect on school desegregation litigation. While the Court ruling included some findings of benefit to plaintiffs in such cases, of more lasting import was its decision to let stand the legal distinction between de jure and de facto segregation. This has severely limited the ability of minority students to sue for more integrated public schools under the Fourteenth Amendment. In the years since Keyes, school systems have become more segregated, and minority students are unable to obtain judicial redress.

Facts of the Case

In Keyes, the parents of Latino and African American students who attended schools in Denver’s Park Hill area sued the school board, alleging that officials acted intentionally to create a racially segregated system. The parents sought to have the school district desegregated.

Following several inconclusive rounds of litigation in lower federal courts, Keyes became the first Supreme Court desegregation case that did not concern a Southern school system with a history of explicit legislative segregation. Keyes was also the first desegregation case that involved both large Latino and African American populations. From these new circumstances emerged holdings that reshaped the fight over school desegregation.

The Court’s Ruling

Two aspects of the Supreme Court’s rationale in Keyes expanded the ability of minority students to sue for more integrated schools. First, the Court ruled that Latino and African American students may be placed in the same category in contrast to Anglo peers for the purposes of defining segregated schools. The Court explained that a school with a sizable population of both African American and Latino students is not integrated because there are students of different races. Rather, the Court indicated that these schools were still segregated, because both African American and Latino students suffered the same educational inequities as compared to Anglo students in schools with predominantly Anglo student populations. This, in the Court’s opinion, allowed minority students to demonstrate racial segregation more easily.

Second, the Court reasoned that if the plaintiffs could prove that school officials intentionally implemented a policy of segregation in a substantial portion of a district, then lower courts could find that the system as a whole was essentially segregated into two racially divided districts. The Court pointed out that in order to succeed, the plaintiffs had to establish intent to engage in racial segregation by providing evidence that school officials used policies that were known to likely cause segregation, such as manipulating neighborhood school policies, including student attendance zones and school site selection criteria. Once the plaintiffs demonstrated that there was segregation in a substantial portion of the district, the Court noted that the burden shifted to the board to prove that its actions regarding other segregated schools in the district were not racially motivated. Again, the Court reduced the burden for minority students to demonstrate that racial segregation was present.

In Keyes, the plaintiffs provided extensive evidence that officials in the Park Hill area segregated minority students from Anglo peers for the previous ten years based on an intentional policy to do so. To this end, the Court was convinced that the burden shifted back to the school board. The Court thus directed the trial court to address this question. On remand, the trial court maintained that because board officials failed to meet the board’s burden of proof, the entire Denver Public School District was a dual system based on race, and it had to be desegregated.

Inherent in the Supreme Court’s second holding was another issue that severely limited the ability of plaintiffs to prove racial segregation and greatly outweighed the gains for minority students in Keyes. The Court let stand the requirement that plaintiffs had to prove the existence of de jure, not just de facto, segregation. De jure segregation, which derives from the direct actions of government officials or institutions, is usually present in the form of explicit legislation or policies. When government actions are direct and explicit, the intent to discriminate is clear. However, absent evidence of clear government intent to racially segregate, that a school system is in fact, or de facto, racially segregated, it is difficult to prove that the actions of public officials are unconstitutional. Even if government policies directly result in de facto school segregation, if the policies were not specifically designed to racially segregate, then no intent to segregate can be legally inferred.

In the time since Keyes, the requirement to prove de jure segregation has all but eliminated unconstitutional school segregation, and the number of segregated public schools has increased. The Denver Public Schools provide a prime example. In 1974, Colorado voters passed the facially neutral Poundstone Amendment to the state constitution, which prevented annexation of surrounding suburban communities to the Denver Public Schools district without a majority vote of the community affected. Due to White suburban flight and a large influx of Latinos to urban Denver, the schools in and around Denver are once again profoundly segregated. Following Keyes, this is considered to be de facto and not de jure segregation. As a result, minority students have little or no legal recourse to demand the opportunity to attend schools with Anglo peers.

Eric Haas

See also Equal Protection Analysis; Fourteenth Amendment; Milliken v. Bradley; Segregation, de Facto; Segregation, De Jure; Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education; White Flight

Further Readings

  • Clotfelter, C. (2004). After Brown: The rise and retreat of school desegregation. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. 
  • Frankenberg, E., & Orfield, G. (2007). Lessons in integration: Realizing the promise of racial diversity in American schools. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press. 

Legal Citations

  • Keyes v. School District No. 1, Denver, Colorado, 413 U.S. 189 (1973).