Milliken v. Bradley: The Milliken I Ruling
In Milliken I, the first major defeat for proponents of desegregation, the Supreme Court ruled that surrounding suburban districts could not be ordered to help desegregate the city’s schools unless plaintiffs could prove that the suburban systems were involved in illegally segregating city schools in the first place. The Court reasoned that it was improper to impose a multidistrict remedy for an individual board’s de jure segregation in the absence of a finding that the other systems included in the interdistrict desegregation plan either failed to operate unitary school systems or committed acts that affected segregation within the other districts.
Reversing in favor of the suburban school systems in Milliken I, the Supreme Court determined that a federal trial court and the Sixth Circuit erred in upholding the desegregation plan insofar as there was no evidence that district boundary lines were established with the purpose of fostering racial segregation. The Court established that the plaintiffs failed to prove that the State of Michigan acted with a specific intent to segregate or that these actions caused the segregation before the judiciary could have applied interdistrict remedies such as busing. The Court added that it was troubled by the fact that the neighboring suburban school boards were not afforded any meaningful opportunities to be included in the plan to present evidence or to be heard on the suitability of the multidistrict remedy or on the constitutional violations that may have been imposed on them as a result of the plan. The Court concluded that because there was no interdistrict violation, there could be no interdistrict remedy.
Justice Thurgood Marshall’s dissent in Milliken I admonished the Court for perpetuating the very action that Brown sought to remedy. In this way, he lamented the prospect of White flight coupled with the rapidly increasing percentage of students of color in the Detroit system that would ensue as a result of the Court’s decision.
Many subsequent Supreme Court cases have invoked Milliken I, including Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1 (2007), wherein a plurality rejected a race conscious admissions plan. The Court continuously reaffirms Milliken I’s judgment that racial imbalances alone are not unconstitutional in and of themselves even in metropolitan areas where desegregation cannot be achieved within existing school district boundaries. At the same time, the Court continues to stress the underlying premise presented in Milliken I: that local school boards, rather than the judiciary, are better suited to understand their own communities and have a better knowledge of what in practice will best meet the educational needs of their students. Milliken I ultimately has blocked lower courts from accepting interdistrict desegregation remedy plans absent a showing of intentional segregation practices.