Washington v. Seattle School District No

Decision Date30 June 1982
Docket NumberNo. 81-9,81-9
Citation458 U.S. 457,73 L.Ed.2d 896,102 S.Ct. 3187
PartiesWASHINGTON, et al., Appellants v. SEATTLE SCHOOL DISTRICT NO. 1, et al
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

In 1978, appellee Seattle School District No. 1 (District) enacted the so-called Seattle Plan for desegregation of its schools. The plan makes extensive use of mandatory busing. Subsequently, a statewide initiative (Initiative 350) was drafted to terminate the use of mandatory busing for purposes of racial integration in the public schools of the State of Washington. The initiative prohibits school boards from requiring any student to attend a school other than the one geographically nearest or next nearest to his home. It sets out a number of broad exceptions to this requirement, however: a student may be assigned beyond his neighborhood school if he requires special educational programs, or if the nearest or next nearest school is overcrowded or unsafe, or if it lacks necessary physical facilities. These exceptions permit school boards to assign students away from their neighborhood schools for virtually all of the nonintegrative purposes required by their educational policies. After the initiative was passed at the November 1978 general election, the District, together with two other districts, brought suit against appellant State in Federal District Court, challenging the constitutionality of Initiative 350 under the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The District Court held the initiative unconstitutional on the ground, inter alia, that it established an impermissible racial classification in violation of Hunter v. Erickson, 393 U.S. 385, 89 S.Ct. 557, 21 L.Ed.2d 616, and Lee v. Nyquist, 318 F.Supp. 710 (WDNY), summarily aff'd, 402 U.S. 935, 91 S.Ct. 1618, 29 L.Ed.2d 105, "because it permits busing for non-racial reasons but forbids it for racial reasons." The court permanently enjoined implementation of the initiative's restrictions. The Court of Appeals affirmed.

Held : Initiative 350 violates the Equal Protection Clause. Pp. 467-487.

(a) When a State allocates governmental power nonneutrally, by explicitly using the racial nature of a decision to determine the decisionmaking process, its action "places special burdens on racial minorities within the governmental process," Hunter v. Erickson, 393 U.S., at 391, 89 S.Ct., at 560, thereby "making it more difficult for certain racial and religious minorities [than for other members of the community] to achieve legislation that is in their interest." Id., at 395, 89 S.Ct., at 563. Such a structuring of the po- litical process is "no more permissible than [is] denying [members of a racial minority] the vote, on an equal basis with others." Id., at 391, 89 S.Ct., at 560. Pp. 467-470.

(b) Initiative 350 must fall because it does "not attemp[t] to allocate governmental power on the basis of any general principle," Hunter v. Erickson, 393 U.S., at 395, 89 S.Ct., at 563, but instead uses the racial nature of an issue to define the governmental decisionmaking structure, thus imposing substantial and unique burdens on racial minorities. The initiative worked a major reordering of the State's educational decisionmaking process. Before adoption of the initiative, the power to determine what programs would most appropriately fill a school district's educational needs—including programs involving student assignment and desegregation—was committed to the local board's discretion. After passage of Initiative 350, authority over all but one of these areas remained in the local board's hands. By placing power over desegregative busing at the state level, the initiative thus "differentiates between the treatment of problems involving racial matters and that afforded other problems in the same area." Lee v. Nyquist, 318 F.Supp., at 718. And Initiative 350 works something more than the "mere repeal" of a desegregation law by the political entity that created it. It burdens all future attempts to integrate Washington schools by lodging decisionmaking authority over the question at a new and remote level of government. This makes the enactment of racially beneficial legislation uniquely difficult, and therefore imposes direct and undeniable burdens on minority interests. Pp. 470-484.

(c) Contrary to appellants' suggestion, Hunter v. Erickson was not effectively overruled by Washington v. Davis, 426 U.S. 229, 96 S.Ct. 2040, 48 L.Ed.2d 597, and Arlington Heights v. Metropolitan Housing Dev. Corp., 429 U.S. 252, 97 S.Ct. 555, 50 L.Ed.2d 450. While Washington v. Davis and Arlington Heights considered classifications facially unrelated to race, Hunter like this case—involved an attempt to use explicitly racial criteria to define the community's decisionmaking structure. In so doing, the legislation at issue there directly and invidiously curtailed "the operation of those political processes ordinarily to be relied upon to protect minorities." United States v. Carolene Products Co., 304 U.S. 144, 152-153, n. 4, 58 S.Ct. 778, 783-784, n. 4, 82 L.Ed. 1234. Hunter § principle—that meaningful and unjustified distinctions based on race are impermissible—is still vital. Pp. 484-487.

9th Cir., 633 F.2d 1338, affirmed.

Kenneth O. Eikenberry, Olympia, Wash., for appellants.

Michael W. Hoge, Seattle, Wash., for appellees.

Justice BLACKMUN delivered the opinion of the Court.

We are presented here with an extraordinary question: whether an elected local school board may use the Fourteenth Amendment to defend its program of busing for integration from attack by the State.


Seattle School District No. 1 (District), which is largely coterminous with the city of Seattle, Wash., is charged by state law with administering 112 schools and educating approximately 54,000 public school students. About 37% of these children are of Negro, Asian, American Indian, or Hispanic ancestry. Because segregated housing patterns in Seattle have created racially imbalanced schools, the District historically has taken steps to alleviate the isolation of minority students; since 1963, it has permitted students to transfer from their neighborhood schools to help cure the District's racial imbalance.1

Despite these efforts, the District in 1977 came under increasing pressure to accelerate its program of desegregation.2 In response, the District's Board of Directors (School Board) enacted a resolution defining "racial imbalance" as "the situation that exists when the combined minority student enrollment in a school exceeds the districtwide combined average by 20 percentage points, provided that the single minority enrollment . . . of no school will exceed 50 percent of the student body." 473 F.Supp. 996, 1006 (WD Wash.1979). The District resolved to eliminate all such imbalance from the Seattle public schools by the beginning of the 1979-1980 academic year.3 In September 1977, the District implemented a "magnet" program, designed to alleviate racial isolation by enhancing educational offerings at certain schools, thereby encouraging voluntary student transfers. A "disproportionate amount of the overall movement" inspired by the program was undertaken by Negro students, however, ibid., and racial imbalance in the Seattle schools was found to have actually increased between the 1970-1971 and 1977-1978 academic years. The District therefore concluded that mandatory reassignment of students was necessary if racial isolation in its schools was to be eliminated. Accordingly, in March 1978, the School Board enacted the so-called "Seattle Plan" for desegregation. The plan, which makes extensive use of busing and mandatory reassignments, desegregates elementary schools by "pairing" and "triading" predominantly minority with predominantly white attendance areas, and by basing student assignments on attendance zones rather than on race. The racial makeup of secondary schools is moderated by "feeding" them from the desegregated elementary schools. App. 142-143. The District represents that the plan results in the reassignment of roughly equal numbers of white and minority students, and allows most students to spend roughly half of their academic careers attending a school near their homes. Brief for Appellee Seattle School District No. 1, p. 5.

The desegregation program, implemented in the 1978-1979 academic year, apparently was effective: the District Court found that the Seattle Plan "has substantially reduced the number of racially imbalanced schools in the district and has substantially reduced the percentage of minority students in those schools which remain racially imbalanced." 473 F.Supp., at 1007.


In late 1977, shortly before the Seattle Plan was formally adopted by the District, a number of Seattle residents who opposed the desegregation strategies being discussed by the School Board formed an organization called the Citizens for Voluntary Integration Committee (CiVIC). This organization, which the District Court found "was formed because of its founders' opposition to The Seattle Plan," ibid., attempted to enjoin implementation of the Board's mandatory desegregation program through litigation in state court; when these efforts failed, CiVIC drafted a statewide initiative designed to terminate the use of mandatory busing for purposes of racial integration.4 This proposal, known as Initiative 350, provided that "no school board . . . shall directly or indirectly require any student to attend a school other than the school which is geographically nearest or next nearest the student's place of residence . . . and which offers the course of study pursued by such student. . . ." See Wash.Rev.Code § 28A.26.010 (1981).5 The initiative then set out, however, a number of broad exceptions to this requirement: a student may be assigned beyond his neighborhood school if he "requires special education, care or guidance," or if "there are health or safety hazards, either natural or man made, or physical barriers or...

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