Meredith v. Jefferson County Board of Education

Meredith v. Jefferson County Board of Education
Meredith v. Jefferson County Board of Education
Seal of the United States Supreme Court.svg
Supreme Court of the United States
Argued December 4, 2006
Decided June 28, 2007
Full case name Meredith v. Jefferson County Board of Education
Docket nos. 05-915
The student assignment plan of Jefferson County Public Schools does not meet the narrowly tailored and compelling interest requirements for a race-based assignment plan because it is used only to achieve "racial balance."
Court membership
Case opinions
Majority Roberts, joined by Alito, Kennedy, Scalia, Thomas
Plurality Roberts, joined by Alito, Scalia, Thomas
Concurrence Thomas
Concur/dissent Kennedy
Dissent Breyer, joined by Ginsberg, Souter, Stevens
Concurrence Stevens
Laws applied
U.S. Const. amend. XIV

Meredith v. Jefferson County Board of Education is a case heard before the United States Supreme Court in December 2006 regarding racial quotas and explicit racial desegregation in public education. The U.S. Supreme Court handed down an opinion on June 28, 2007, rejecting the use of a student's race in student assignment plans.[1] The Supreme Court overturned the decision of the lower court and remanded the case to the District Court.

Meredith was decided along with Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1, the lead case. For further information on the legal analysis of the opinion, see that article.


Facts of the case

This case is the last of a trilogy of cases against Jefferson County Public Schools and their use of race in assigning students to schools. The first case started in 1998 when five African American students sued JCPS to allow them to attend Central High School, a magnet school. The suit alleged that they were denied entrance because they were black. In 2000, Federal Judge John Heyburn, after finding that the JCPS school system did not need to be under a court-ordered desegregation policy, ruled that race could not be used for student assignment placement in the JCPS school system in regard to their magnet school programs. In 2004, he ruled the same for the traditional schools, but allowed the regular public schools to use race as the admission requirement. It is this part that went before the US Supreme Court as the other two cases were not appealed by JCPS.

JCPS is located in Louisville, Kentucky. JCPS is the 26th largest school district in the United States. American high school students sued JCPS to allow them to attend Central High School, a magnet school. They were denied entrance because they were black.

In 2000, Federal Judge John Heyburn, after finding that the JCPS school system did not need to be under a court-ordered desegregation policy, ruled that race could not used as a factor for school assignment. Students are assigned to school based on the race makeup of each school, no less than 15% and no more than 50% Black. Race is defined as Black and “Other”. (Asian, Hispanic, White, etc. are classified as “Other”.) Magnet and Traditional schools are exempt from this ratio per the 2000 and 2003 Court Order. Louisville’s population is about 58% White; 38% Black, 2% Asian, 1.3% Hispanics.

Case timeline

1975 July 17 Judge James F. Gordon, a federal judge of US District Court, Western District of Kentucky, orders a desegregation policy for the Jefferson County Public School system, one of the first in the country to implement such. This case is cited as Haycraft v. Board of Education of Louisville, No. 7291, Memorandum Opinion and Judgment (W.D. Ky. Mar. 8, 1973), rev’d, 489 F.2d 925 (6th Cir. 1973) & 521 F.2d 578 (6th Cir. 1975)
1978 June 28 U.S. Supreme Court rules on University of California vs Allan Bakke, 438 U.S. 265. In a splinter court (5/4 decision on different parts) Justice Powell wrote the decision with Burger, Stewart, Stevens and Rehnquist agreeing that race cannot be used as the sole factor for admittance in any program that receives federal financial assistance based on the 14th Amendment and the Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Justices White, Brennan, Marshall and Blackmun dissented in part.
2000 June 20 John Heyburn II, federal judge for the US District Court, Western District, reverses the 1974 Order, citing that after 25 years since there were no remaining areas of segregation in the school system, and that race could not be the sole factor in determining school admittance to the local magnet schools. The case was filed in 1998 as Hampton v. Jefferson County Board of Education with five (5) African American students suing the school board because of their denial to a school based on race. The first case cited as 72F.Supp. 2d 753(W.D. Ky 1999) said that there could be a hearing to see if JCPS still needed desegregation. The second, cited as 102F.Supp. 2d 358 (W.D. Ky 2000), terminated the desegregation order of 1975 and stopped the use of race as a factor in determining admittance to the local magnet schools.
2002 October 21 Ted Gordon, (no relation to Judge Gordon) files a complaint in the US District Court, Western District of Kentucky, to stop the current Jefferson County Public system’s policy of determining admittance to the traditional schools based on race and gender. The action was filed by David McFarland on behalf of his two sons, Stephen and Daniel.
2003 January 21 At a pretrial hearing, Judge Heyburn requested and the parties agree to wait on a trial until the US Supreme Court decision on Grutter (University of Michigan Law School, 02-241l) and Gratz (University of Michigan undergraduate, 02-516) v. Bollinger. This decision was decided by June 2003, 25 years after the Supreme Court’s decision on Bakke.
April 10 Crystal Meredith, parent of Joshua, joins the complaint as her son (age five) was denied admission to Bloom Elementary School based on racial quotas even though there was room at the school. Meredith had just moved to Louisville in August 2002 and her neighborhood school (Breckenridge Franklin) could not admit her son, as it was a year round school. Joshua is sent to Whitney Young, over a 45 minute bus ride away. She is denied transferred to Bloom, another nearby school. This opens the case to include all the schools in the system with Meredith as the example of all the students in the school system. The other two sets of parents ready to join the suit were an African American mother with twin sons and a Native American parent.
May 1 Judge Heyburn rules that this new complaint (Meredith) now covers the ‘full scope’, encompassing the entire JCPS school system and she becomes the representation of “most all students and parents”.
June 23 US Supreme Court on Gratz et Al. v. Bollinger et al. (University of Michigan undergraduate); No. 02-516. “We conclude, therefore, that because the University’s use of race in its current freshman admissions policy is not narrowly tailored to achieve respondent’s asserted compelling interest in diversity, the admissions policy violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. We further find that the admissions policy also violates Title VI and 42 U.S.C.§ 1981.”
December 8–12 Trial in US District Court (Federal); Western District of Kentucky under Chief Judge John G. Heyburn
2004 June 29 Heyburn rules that traditional schools cannot use race or gender as the sole factor for admittance, but busing to achieve racial quotas can continue in regular public schools. (02-00620)
July Filed notice of Appeal to US Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit, Cincinnati, OH on the use of race for admittance in the schools.
2005 June 9 Oral Arguments in Cincinnati
July 21 US Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit upheld US District Court ruling (05a0309P.06)
2006 January 18 Petition for Writ of Certiorari filed in US Supreme Court (05-915)
June 5 US Supreme Court agrees to hear case in the upcoming session along with Seattle (05-908)
August 21 Amicus curiae brief filed by the United States (Solicitor General and Department of Education) in support of Mr. Gordon
December 4 Oral argument before the US Supreme Court
2007 June 28 Supreme Court hands down a 5-4 decision stating that the current student assignment plan does not meet narrowly tailored and compelling interests criteria in its use of race. The plurality opinion, written by Chief Justice Roberts, asserts that race cannot be used at all in student assignment. The concurring opinion, by Justice Kennedy, allows for certain "race-conscious" strategies in achieving diversity.

Procedural history

The federal trial court ruled against the school district in regard to its Traditional School programs, holding that the Plan did not satisfy the "compelling interest" requirement of the Supreme Court's equal protection (14th Amendment) decisions, and also holding that the student assignment plan did not satisfy the "narrow tailoring" requirement of those decisions. The Court did rule in favor of the school district on its regular school programs, allowing race to be used to assign students. Meredith appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, which upheld the trial court's decision. Meredith then appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. The Court overturned the lower courts decision, remanding the case back to the lower court.


This case was ruled in conjunction with case 05-908, Parents v. Seattle. The majority opinion was 5-4 that the student assignment plan of Jefferson County Public Schools cannot be used as it currently exists. The judgments of the Courts of Appeals for the Sixth and Ninth Circuits (the Appellate Courts originally hearing the respective cases) were reversed and both cases were remanded down to the lower courts.

The majority opinion was written by Chief Justice Roberts with Justices Alito, Kennedy, Scalia and Thomas joining Roberts on Parts I, II, III-A and III-C of his opinion. Kennedy dissented from Roberts on Parts III-B and IV of the opinion, leaving those portions at only a plurality. Justice Breyer wrote the dissenting opinion, with Justices Ginsberg, Souter and Stevens joining. Justice Thomas wrote a concurring opinion to Roberts', adding his own response to the dissenting opinion of Breyer. Kennedy, concurring in part and concurring in the judgment, wrote a concurring opinion in which he stated his reasons for dissenting from Roberts' opinion on Parts III-B and IV. Justice Stevens wrote a concurring opinion to Breyer's dissent.

Roberts' majority/plurality opinion

In writing the Opinion of the Court for certain points and a plurality opinion for others, Chief Justice Roberts' opinion was divided as follows:

  • Part I - Case history and establishment of circumstances
I-A - Case history of Parents v. Seattle
I-B - Case history of Meredith v. JCBE
  • Part II - Establishment of jurisdiction
  • Part III - Findings with regards to the case
III-A - How the school districts fail to meet "narrowly tailored" and "compelling interest" requirements
III-B - "Racial diversity" insufficient reason for use of race in student assignment (plurality opinion only - Kennedy dissented)
III-C - "Minimal effect" of racial classifications questions need for them at all. Also, failure of districts to seek alternative classification methods.
  • Part IV - Response to dissenting opinion (plurality opinion only - Kennedy dissented)

Thomas's concurring opinion

Justice Thomas wrote a concurring opinion for the purpose of responding to a number of the contentions of Justice Breyer's dissent.

  • Part I - Response to dissent's claim of "resegregation"
I-A - How "racial imbalance" is not segregation
I-B - School districts lack present compelling interest in remedying past segregation
1 - Race-based decision-making not allowed by Constitution on basis of "remedial purpose"
2 - Narrow exception created by Court not in effect in this case
3 - Court-permitted circumstances for voluntary desegregation plans not in effect here
I-C - Contrast between racial imbalance and de jure segregation and remedies for each.
  • Part II - Neither district has compelling interest
I-A - Rebuff of claim that because both racial classes are equally disadvantaged in system, scrutiny need not be as strict
II-B - Acceptance of very weak claims of compelling interest by the dissent
1 - Response to dissent's claim of interest in "setting right the consequences of prior conditions of segregation."
2 - Response to dissent's claim of interest in promoting educational benefit.
3 - Response to dissent's claim of interest through a "democratic element."
4 - Response to dissent's claim of interest following "a fortiori from the interest [the] Court recognized as compelling in Grutter."
II-C - Implausibility of maintaining compelling interest, therefore unconstitutional.
  • Part III - Marginalization of notion of "color-blind Constitution" by dissent

Kennedy's concurring opinion

Justice Kennedy concurred in part with Chief Justice Roberts' opinion and concurred in the judgment. He wrote a concurring opinion addressing his dissent from part of Roberts' opinion.

  • Part I - Kennedy's dissent from the plurality opinion, stating that diversity can be a compelling educational goal depending on the definition.
  • Part II - Chief Justice's implication of an "all-too-unyielding insistence that race cannot be a factor."
  • Part III - Response to dissent's assumptions
III-A - "[R]eliance on [the] Court's precedents to justify the explicit, sweeping, classwide racial classifications at issue" as a misreading that undermines "principles needed to guard our freedom."
III-B - Dissent's minimizing or neglecting difference between de facto segregation and de jure segregation.
III-C - Dissent ignoring dangers of "individual classifications"

Breyer's dissenting opinion

Justice Breyer wrote the primary dissenting opinion for this case. Justices Ginsburg, Souter and Stevens joined in this dissent. The section headings used in Breyer's opinion are given here, when they are used.

  • Part I - Facts
I-A - Seattle
I-B - Louisville
I-C - Summary of facts and history
  • Part II - The Legal Standard
  • Part III - Applying the Legal Standard
III-A - Compelling Interest
III-B - Narrow Tailoring
  • Part IV - Direct Precedent
  • Part V - Consequences
  • Part VI - Conclusions

Following the text of his opinion, Justice Breyer included two appendices. Appendix A is a series of charts and tables showing segregation trends. Appendix B is a bibliography for Parts I-A and I-B.

Stevens' concurring dissenting opinion

Justice Stevens wrote an opinion concurring with Justice Breyer's primary dissenting opinion. This opinion was not divided into sections and was an overview of the history of the Supreme Court's decisions pertaining to this case. Stevens concluded with the sentence: "It is my firm conviction that no Member of the Court that I joined in 1975 would have agreed with today's decision."

Subsequent history

The opinion came less than two months before the start of the regular school year in Jefferson County and less than three weeks before the start of year-round school in the District. At a press conference the day of the opinion, attorney for the plaintiff Ted Gordon stated that he would, if necessary, seek legal measures to prevent the use of the current Student Assignment Plan for the 2007-2008 school year. When questioned about the close timing, Gordon stated that all the District had to do was "push a button" to change things over to a plan compliant with the Court's ruling.

In a separate conference, JCPS Representative Pat Todd emphasized that the current assignment plan would remain in effect for the 07-08 school year, citing the finalization of budgets, staffing, assignments and busing as prevailing reasons for no change being logistically possible.

See also

Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1, the lead case


  1. ^ WAVE 3 TV Louisville, KY :: High court rejects JCPS student assignment plan

External links

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