Order of Argument in the Case Brown V. Board of Education

By Chism, Kahlil; Potter, Lee Ann | Social Education, January-February 2004 | Go to article overview

Order of Argument in the Case Brown V. Board of Education


Chism, Kahlil, Potter, Lee Ann, Social Education


The Supreme Court's opinion in the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education case legally ended decades of racial segregation in America's public schools. Originally named after Oliver Brown, the first of many plaintiffs listed in the lower court case of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, KS, the landmark decision actually resolved five separate segregation cases from four states and the District of Columbia consolidated under the name Brown v. Board of Education. While the attorneys originally argued the cases on appeal to the Court in 1952, the featured document, School Segregation Cases--Order of Argument, offers a window into the three days in December 1953 during which they reargued the cases.

A reargument was necessary because the Court desired briefs from both sides in answer to five questions, all pertaining to the attorneys' opinions on whether or not Congress had segregation in public schools in mind when the 14th Amendment was ratified. The document lists the names of each case, the states from which they came, the order in which the Court heard them, the names of the attorneys for the appellants and appellees, the total time allotted for arguments, and the dates over which the arguments took place.

The first case listed, Briggs v. Elliott, originated in Clarendon County, South Carolina, in the fall of 1950. Harry Briggs was one of twenty plaintiffs who charged that R. W Elliott, as president of the Clarendon County School Board, violated their right to equal protection under the 14th Amendment by upholding the county's segregated education law. Brigs featured social science testimony on behalf of the plaintiffs from some of the nation's leading child psychologists, such as Dr. Kenneth Clark, whose famous doll study concluded that segregation negatively affected the self-esteem and psyche of African American children. Such testimony was groundbreaking because only once before in U.S. history had a plaintiff attempted to present such evidence before the Court. Thurgood Marshall, the noted NAACP attorney and future Supreme Court justice, argued the Briggs case at the district and federal court levels. After the U.S. District Court's three-judge panel ruled against the plaintiffs, the case was appealed to the Supreme Court. Marshall also argued the Davis v. County School Board of Prince Edward County, Virginia, case at the federal level. Originally filed in May 1951 by plaintiff's attorneys Spottswood Robinson and Oliver Hill, the Davis case, like the others, argued that Virginia's segregated education laws were unconstitutional because they violated the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment. And like the Briggs case, Virginia's three-judge panel ruled against the 117 students who were identified as plaintiffs in the case.

Listed third in the order of arguments, Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka was initially filed in February 1951 by three Topeka area lawyers, assisted by the NAACP's Robert Carter and Jack Greenberg. As in the Briggs case, this case featured social science testimony on behalf of the plaintiffs that segregation had a harmful effect on the psychology of African American children. While that testimony did not prevent the Topeka judges from ruling against the plaintiffs, the evidence from this case eventually found its way into the wording of the Warren court's May 17, 1954, opinion. The Court concluded that

   To separate them [children in
   grade and high schools] from others
   of similar age and qualifications
   solely because of their race
   generates a feeling of inferiority
   as to their status in the community
   that may affect their hearts and
   minds in a way unlikely to ever
   be undone. (1)

Because Washington, DC, is a federal territory governed by Congress and is not a state, the Bolling v. Sharpe case was argued as a violation of the Fifth Amendment guarantee of "due process." The 14th Amendment only mentions states, so this case could not be argued as a violation of "equal protection," as were the other cases. …

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