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The Burger Court (1969–86)

Court Decisions

What did the Burger Court rule with respect to busing in the desegregation of schools?

Several of the Burger Court decisions dealt with how far and by what methods a school system must go in order to achieve desegregation of its public schools. In Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education (1971), the Burger Court unanimously ruled that public school systems could use busing as a means of achieving the desegregation of public schools. “We find no basis for holding that the local school authorities may not be required to employ bus transportation as one tool of school desegregation,” the Court wrote. “Desegregation plans cannot be limited to the walk-in school.”

Some southern school districts contended that children should simply attend their neighborhood schools. However, the Court recognized that given the realities of segregated housing patterns, remaining in those schools might never lead to any real desegregation of the schools. Burger wrote in Swann:

All things being equal, with no history of discrimination, it might well be desirable to assign pupils to schools nearest their homes. But all things are not equal in a system that has been deliberately constructed and maintained to enforce racial segregation. The remedy for such segregation may be administratively awkward, inconvenient, and even bizarre in some situations and may impose burdens on some; but all awkwardness and inconvenience cannot be avoided in the interim period when remedial adjustments are being made to eliminate the dual school systems.

In Swann, the Burger Court said that school authorities and district court judges should make sure that school constructions and closings do not operate in a way that reestablishes a dual school system. The goal in the school desegregation cases was for school systems to achieve unitary status.

The Court in Swann also noted that schools do not have to achieve the precise ratio of students by race found in the school system district wide. However, the Court said that it was within the equitable powers of district court judges to rely on “mathematical ratios.”

Burger cautioned in his opinion that remedies must not exceed the court’s equitable powers and that such remedial powers could be exercised “only on the basis of a constitutional violation.”

To many school desegregation advocates, the Swann decision represented the high point of the Court’s desegregation cases. The Court cut back on some of these rulings in later decisions, such as Milliken v. Bradley (1974) and Pasadena Board of Education v. Spangler (1976).



Allen Bakke (center) attends his first day at the Medical School of the University of California at Davis on September 25, 1978. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in his favor in a reverse discrimination case after his application to medical school was rejected because he was white. Walt Zeboski/AP Images.
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