University of Michigan Law School
Civil Rights Litigation Clearinghouse
Title "Freeman v. Pitts, 112 S. Ct. 1430 (1992): The Travails of A "Garden Variety Desegregation Case""
Date May 1993
Author Margo Schlanger
Author Institution Yale Law School
Author Role Law Student
Abstract As in many desegregation cases, in Freeman v. Pitts, residential segregation led to the neighborhood schools becoming racially identifiable. The School District argued that it had not caused residential segregation, and that it was not constitutionally bound to counter its effects. Along with a case decided the year before, Board of Education of Oklahoma City v. Dowell, Freeman marks the Supreme Court's acquiescence in the beginning of the end of 25 years of federal court supervision of Southern school districts.

The Court's Freeman opinion could have marked not just the beginning of the end of the era, but the end of the era. It could have been a disaster for those looking to continue to press school boards in the south to create and retain integrated schools. Instead, it merely told judges what the contours of their inquiry should be, leaving plenty of room for those judges to retain jurisdiction, if they feel it necessary.
There was, however, also room for disaster; and it was room, I think, created by the (avoidable) failings of the type of litigation Freeman was; institutionally conceived, lawyer initiated, and not (at first) focused on clients but on policy. When these are the characteristics of a lawsuit, two urgent questions arise: What do you do when the institutional eye blinks -- since it is not involved day-to-day in the problems the litigation addresses? And what do you do when the institutional support vanishes? The answers supplied by Freeman v. Pitts are not model ones. The case survived through neglect by its lawyer-creators, and serious mistakes by the attorneys who took it on later when no one else would. It faced community challenges that perhaps could have been avoided had there been a more concerted effort from the start to meet the needs of the larger African American community. In the final analysis, these problems doomed the plaintiffs to defeat in a Supreme Court that had to be persuaded to support the continuation of court supervision over a school system.


This Resource Relates To
case Freeman v. Pitts (SD-GA-0002)

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