WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court Tuesday established relaxed standards that school districts still operating under desegregation orders must meet to prove compliance with the law and remove themselves from federal court jurisdiction.
The court, in a 5-3 decision, ruled that a once-segregated school system can be found to have achieved the mandate of a federal court when it has complied with integration orders for a 'reasonable period of time,' has eliminated the remnants of past legalized segregation 'as far as practicable,' and when it is deemed 'unlikely' that the school board would return to its former ways.
The decision ultimately could affect more than 500 school districts nationwide still under court-ordered desegregation plans. Many of those school districts had been waiting for years for the court to speak on the issue.
Clint Bolick, director of the Landmark Legal Foundation's Center for Civil Rights, said the decision means 'forced busing will not be a permanent part of the American landscape.'
But some legal experts said the decision, which came 37 years after the landmark Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka, Kan., ruling that led to forced busing and other desegregation measures, left many major issues unresolved.
'It is a very ambiguous decision,' said Steven Shapiro, associate legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union. 'The only thing it guarantees is further litigation.'
The high court reversed a decision of the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which had ruled that a desegregation decree should remain in effect indefinitely unless a school district proved 'a clear showing of grievous wrong evoked by new and unforeseen conditions.'
In that respect it lowered the standards that school districts must meet to remove themselves from court-ordered desegregation plans.
The justices, however, ruled that lower courts, in deciding if all 'vestiges' of past legalized segregation have been eliminated, must look not only at student enrollment but to 'every facet of school operations -- faculty, staff, transportation, extracurricular activities and facilities.'
And the court's decision left the door open for lower courts to decide on a case-by-case basis whether housing patterns that could mean a return to all-black and all-white schools in many areas if busing ends are a 'vestige' of discrimination or simply a factor of choice and economics.
If it were found to be a 'vestige' in a given area, that could be used by a federal court to justify continuing to enforce a desegregation plan.
'This is certainly no invitation (for school districts) to run in and get a quick and easy out,' said Thomas Henderson, deputy director of litigation for the Lawyers' Committeefor Civil Rights Under Law. 'I don't believe this is an easy standard to meet.'
The case involved the Board of Education of Oklahoma City and black school children and their parents who objected to an end to busing in some grades.
The decision clears the way for the Oklahoma City school board to ask the district court anew to remove it from the 1972 injunction that led to cross-town busing and other measures.
NAACP Executive Director Benjamin Hooks said he was disappointed with the decision but did not expect it to produce a 'wholesale dissolution of desegregation decrees.'
Hooks called on the Bush administration not to use it to prompt widespread legal challenges to individual desegregation orders.
'In the present case, a finding by the District Court that the Oklahoma City School District was being operated in compliance with the commands of the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment, and that it was unlikely that the school board would return to its former ways, would be a finding that the purposes of the desegregation litigation had been fully achieved,' Chief Justice William Rehnquist wrote in the majority opinion. 'No additional showing of 'grievous wrong evoked by new and unforeseen conditions' is required of the school board.'
'From the very first, federal supervision of local school systems was intended as a temporary measure to remedy past discrimination,' wrote Rehnquist, who added that such decrees are 'not intended to operate in perpetuity.'
Justice Thurgood Marshall, the only black on the nine-person bench, who as a lawyer successfully argued the 1954 Brown case, dissented, as did Justices Harry Blackmun and John Paul Stevens.
Justice David Souter, who was not yet a member of the court when the case was argued Oct. 2, did not take part in the decision, which could be one of the most far-reaching of the court's 1990-91 term.
Marshall, writing the dissenting opinion, said the 'threatened re- emergence of one-race schools' should always be seen as a 'vestige' of mandated segregation. Under his standard, a desegregation order could never be lifted if it would mean in essence a return to racially separate schools.
The Oklahoma City school board argued that since it satisifed a court's order of integration through 13 years of cross-town busing and other means, it was within its legal rights in 1985 when it ended busing for grades one through four and returned to neighborhood schools -- even though the result essentially resegregated a number of !