Precedent, Parity, and Racial Discrimination: A Federal/State Comparison of the Impact of Brown V. Board of Education

By Romero, David W.; Romero, Francine Sanders | Law & Society Review, December 2003 | Go to article overview

Precedent, Parity, and Racial Discrimination: A Federal/State Comparison of the Impact of Brown V. Board of Education


Romero, David W., Romero, Francine Sanders, Law & Society Review


Questions regarding Brown v. Board of Education's short-term effect remain unanswered, particularly its comparative impact on federal district courts and state supreme courts. We test this through an analysis of racial discrimination cases in those venues in the twenty-year period bifurcated by the decision in May 1954. Our findings suggest that while federal district courts and state courts were similarly unresponsive to discrimination claims before that date, Brown exerted a significant impact on district court decisions but had little influence at the state level. Furthermore, a third pattern was found in federal appellate courts, where discrimination claims had a high likelihood of prominority decisions even before the Supreme Court directive.

Introduction

As the fiftieth anniversary of the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education (347 U.S. 483) decision approaches, considerations of this precedent's long-term consequences are sure to proliferate, since debate on this point persists.1 But scholars should keep in mind that some of the ostensibly easier questions concerning the impact of the Supreme Court proclamation declaring de jure segregation unconstitutional remain unresolved. In particular, a comparative assessment of the immediate, shorter-term effect of this opinion on federal district courts and state supreme courts has not been delineated. While evidence suggests that Brown exerted significant influence on district court decisionmaking, the next logical step should be to explore whether state courts displayed the same fidelity to the mandate and if state and federal venues differed in their willingness to protect minorities prior to the precedent. The primary focus of this investigation then is a comparison of racial discrimination cases in state supreme courts and federal district courts in the twenty-year period (1944-64) bifurcated by announcement of the initial Brown v. Board of Education opinion in May 1954.

Our findings suggest two clear conclusions. First, in the years preceding Brown, federal district courts and state supreme courts displayed a similar lack of responsiveness to discrimination claims. Once the opinion was announced, however, state supreme courts lagged seriously behind in heeding the Supreme Court mandate. In short, Brown made a significant difference in federal district court decisions, shifting overall outcomes from generally unsympathetic to strongly in support of minority claims, regardless of region. But, in this narrow time frame at least, it had no such impact at the state level.

In addition, we extend these conclusions with the introduction of appellate-level data. These findings establish that federal circuit courts displayed a strong record of minority protection prior to 1954, thus complementing the historical value of our study with a deeper exploration of federal/state parity. In this vein, our findings highlight the potential divergence of outcomes within the federal system as well as the discrete nature of two sometimes conflated aspects of the supposed bulwark tendencies of federal courts: protection of minority rights and fidelity to Supreme Court precedent.

Literature Review

At its core, then, our analysis taps into and contributes to two broad and long-standing issues concerning judicial policymaking: whether federal courts, even in the absence of strong precedent, are more deferential to minority rights than are state courts, and whether lower federal courts respond more obediently to Supreme Court doctrine than do state courts. In this section, after using these general controversies to frame our inquiry and highlight its significance, we focus on the literature related to the specific historical questions our investigation targets.

The first relevant aspect of the existing scholarship concerns the general effects of rules and structure in fostering a federal judiciary that is more protective than state courts of the constitutional rights of groups potentially handicapped in the democratic process. …

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