Bolling v. Sharpe: Supreme Court Case, Arguments, Impact

Segregation in Washington D.C. Schools

A demonstration against segregated schools

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Bolling v. Sharpe (1954) asked the Supreme Court to determine the constitutionality of segregation in Washington, D.C., public schools. In a unanimous decision, the Court ruled that segregation denied black students due process under the Fifth Amendment.

Fast Facts: Bolling v. Sharpe

  • Case Argued: December 10—11, 1952; December 8—9, 1953
  • Decision Issued: May 17, 1954
  • Petitioner: Spotswood Thomas Bolling, et al
  • Respondent: C. Melvin Sharpe, et al
  • Key Questions: Did segregation in Washington D.C.’s public schools violate the Due Process Clause?
  • Unanimous Decision: Justices Warren, Black, Reed, Frankfurter, Douglas, Jackson, Burton, Clark, and Minton
  • Ruling: Racial discrimination in the public schools of Washington, D.C. did deny blacks due process of law as protected by the Fifth Amendment.

Facts of the Case

In 1947, Charles Houston began working with Consolidated Parents Group, a campaign to end segregation in Washington, D.C. schools. A local barber, Gardner Bishop, brought Houston on board. While Bishop ran demonstrations and wrote letters to the editor, Houston worked on the legal approach. Houston was a civil rights lawyer and began systematically filing cases against D.C. schools alleging inequities in class sizes, facilities, and learning materials.

Before the cases went to trial, Houston's health failed. A Harvard professor, James Madison Nabrit Jr., agreed to help but insisted on taking on a new case. Eleven black students were rejected from a brand new high school with unfilled classrooms. Nabrit argued that the rejection violated the Fifth Amendment, an argument that had not been previously used. Most lawyers argued that segregation violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The U.S. District Court rejected the argument. While waiting for an appeal, Nabrit petitioned the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court granted certiorari as part of a group of cases dealing with segregation. The decision in Bolling v. Sharpe was handed down the same day as Brown v. Board of Education.

Constitutional Issues

Does public school segregation violate the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment? Is education a fundamental right?

The Fifth Amendment to the Constitution states that:

No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a grand jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the militia, when in actual service in time of war or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offense to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.

Arguments

Nabrit was joined by fellow attorney Charles E.C. Hayes for oral arguments before the Supreme Court.

The Fourteenth Amendment only applies to the states. As a result, an equal protection argument could not be used to argue the unconstitutionality of segregation in Washington, D.C., schools. Instead, Hayes argued that the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment protected students against segregation. Segregation itself, he argued, was inherently unconstitutional because it arbitrarily deprived students of liberty.

During Nabrit's portion of the argument, he suggested that amendments to the Constitution after the Civil War removed "any dubious power which the Federal Government may have had prior to that time to deal with people solely on the basis of race or color."

Nabrit also referenced the Supreme Court's decision in Korematsu v. U.S. to show that the court had only authorized arbitrary suspensions of liberty under very specific circumstances. Nabrit argued that the Court could not demonstrate a convincing reason to deprive black students the liberty to be educated alongside white student in D.C. public schools.

Majority Opinion

Chief Justice Earl E. Warren delivered the unanimous opinion in Bolling v. Sharpe. The Supreme Court found that segregation in public schools denied black students due process of law under the Fifth Amendment. The Due Process Clause prevents the federal government from denying someone life, liberty, or property. In this case, the District of Columbia deprived students of liberty when it discriminated on the basis of race.

The Fifth Amendment, added about 80 years earlier than the Fourteenth Amendment, does not have an equal protection clause. Justice Warren wrote, on behalf of the Court, that "equal protection" and "due process" were not one in the same. However, they both suggested the importance of equality.

The Court noted that "discrimination may be so unjustifiable as to be violative of due process."

The Justices chose not to define "liberty." Instead, they argued that it covers a large range of conduct. The government cannot legally restrict liberty unless that restriction is related to a legitimate government objective.

Justice Warren wrote:

"Segregation in public education is not reasonably related to any proper governmental objective, and thus it imposes on Negro children of the District of Columbia a burden that constitutes an arbitrary deprivation of their liberty in violation of the Due Process Clause."

Finally, the Court found that if the Constitution prevented states from racially segregating their public schools, it would prevent the Federal Government from doing the same.

Impact

Bolling v. Sharpe was part of a group of landmark cases that forged a path for de-segregation. The decision in Bolling v. Sharpe was distinct from Brown v. Board of Education because it used the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment instead of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. In doing so, the Supreme Court created "reverse incorporation." Incorporation is the legal doctrine that makes the first ten amendments applicable to the states using the Fourteenth Amendment. In Bolling v. Sharpe the Supreme Court reverse engineered it. The Court made the Fourteenth Amendment applicable to the federal government using one of the first ten amendments.

Sources

  • Bolling v. Sharpe, 347 U.S. 497 (1954)
  • “Order of Argument in the Case, Brown v. Board of Education.” National Archives and Records Administration, www.archives.gov/education/lessons/brown-case-order.
  • “Hayes and Nabrit Oral Arguments.” Digital Archive: Brown v. Board of Education, University of Michigan Library, www.lib.umich.edu/brown-versus-board-education/oral/Hayes&Nabrit.pdf.