Landmark Supreme Court Case: Bolling v. Sharpe (1954)
Bolling v. Sharpe (1954) is the 100th landmark Supreme Court case, fourteenth in the Politics, Society, Freedom, and Equality module, featured in the KTB Prep American Government and Civics series designed to acquaint users with the origins, concepts, organizations, and policies of the United States government and political system. The goal is greater familiarization with the rights and obligations of citizenship at the local, state, national, and global levels and the history of our nation as a democracy. While there is overlap, these landmark cases are separated into cases addressing:
- Foreign Policy
- Science & Technology
- Public Safety
- Death Penalty
- Speech, Press, and Protest
- Criminal Justice
- Politics, Society, Freedom, and Equality
The Supreme Court
The Supreme Court is the highest court in the United States. Article III of the U.S. Constitution created the Supreme Court and authorized Congress to pass laws establishing a system of lower courts. The Constitution elaborated neither the exact powers and prerogatives of the Supreme Court nor the organization of the Judicial Branch as a whole. Thus, it has been left to Congress and to the Justices of the Court through their decisions to develop the Federal Judiciary and a body of Federal law.
The number of Justices on the Supreme Court changed six times before settling at the present total of nine in 1869. Since the formation of the Court in 1790, there have been only 17 Chief Justices* and 102 Associate Justices, with Justices serving for an average of 16 years. On average a new Justice joins the Court almost every two years.
The Supreme Court of the United States hears about 100 to 150 appeals of the more than 7,000 cases it is asked to review every year. That means the decisions made by the 12 Circuit Courts of Appeals across the country and the Federal Circuit Court are the last word in thousands of cases.
Court of Appeals
In the federal court system’s present form, 94 district level trial courts and 13 courts of appeals sit below the Supreme Court. The 94 federal judicial districts are organized into 12 regional circuits, each of which has a court of appeals. The appellate court’s task is to determine whether or not the law was applied correctly in the trial court. Appeals courts consist of three judges and do not use a jury.
The appellate courts do not retry cases or hear new evidence. They do not hear witnesses testify. There is no jury. Appellate courts review the procedures and the decisions in the trial court to make sure that the proceedings were fair and that the proper law was applied correctly.
A court of appeals hears challenges to district court decisions from courts located within its circuit, as well as appeals from decisions of federal administrative agencies. In addition, the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit has nationwide jurisdiction to hear appeals in specialized cases, such as those involving patent laws, and cases decided by the U.S. Court of International Trade and the U.S. Court of Federal Claims.
The nation’s 94 trial courts are called U.S. District Courts. At a trial in a U.S. District Court, witnesses give testimony and a judge or jury decides who is guilty or not guilty — or who is liable or not liable. District courts resolve disputes by determining the facts and applying legal principles to decide who is right.
Trial courts include the district judge who tries the case and a jury that decides the case. Magistrate judges assist district judges in preparing cases for trial. They may also conduct trials in misdemeanor cases.
There is at least one district court in each state, and the District of Columbia. Each district includes a U.S. bankruptcy court as a unit of the district court.
Federal courts have exclusive jurisdiction over bankruptcy cases involving personal, business, or farm bankruptcy. This means a bankruptcy case cannot be filed in state court. Bankruptcy Appellate Panels (BAPs) are 3-judge panels authorized to hear appeals of bankruptcy court decisions. These panels are a unit of the federal courts of appeals, and must be established by that circuit. Five circuits have established panels: First Circuit, Sixth Circuit, Eighth Circuit, Ninth Circuit, and Tenth Circuit.
Bolling v. Sharpe (1954)
Beginning in late 1941, a group of parents from the Anacostia neighborhood of Washington, D.C., calling themselves the Consolidated Parents Group, petitioned the Board of Education of the District of Columbia to open the nearly-completed John Phillip Sousa Junior High as an integrated school. The school board denied the petition and the school opened, admitting only whites. On September 11, 1950, Gardner Bishop, Nicholas Stabile and the Consolidated Parents Group attempted to get eleven African-American students (including the case’s plaintiff, Spottswood Bolling) admitted to the school, but were refused entry by the school’s principal.
James Nabrit Jr., a professor of law at Howard University School of Law, a historically black university, filed suit in 1951 on behalf of Bolling and the other students in the District Court for the District of Columbia seeking assistance in the students’ admission. After the court dismissed the claim, the case was granted a writ of certiorari by the Supreme Court in 1952.
Q: Did the segregation of the public schools of Washington D.C. violate the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment?
A: Yes. The Fifth Amendment’s guarantee of “liberty” protected by due process also guaranteed racial equality in public education in the District of Columbia
Unanimous holding racial segregation in the public schools of the District of Columbia is a denial of the due process of law guaranteed by the Fifth Amendment. racial discrimination in the public schools of Washington, DC, denied blacks due process of law as protected by the Fifth Amendment. Noting the legal peculiarities of DC, the Court recognized that the Fifth Amendment (which applied to the District) did not contain an Equal Protection Clause unlike the Fourteenth Amendment. Lacking an equal protection standard to invalidate the District’s segregation, the Court relied on the Fifth Amendment’s guarantee of “liberty” to find the segregation of the Washington, DC, schools unconstitutional.
Howard law professor George E. C. Hayes worked with Nabrit on the oral argument for the Supreme Court hearing. While Nabrit’s argument in Bolling rested on the unconstitutionality of segregation, the much more famous Brown v. Board of Education (decided on the same day) argued that the idea of ‘separate but equal’ facilities sanctioned by Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) was a fallacy as the facilities for black students were woefully inadequate. Bolling’s most important legacy is the concept of reverse incorporation and the application of the same anti-discrimination principles to state and federal governments.
Next Politics, Society, Freedom and Equality Case: Brown (2) v. Board of Education (1955)
Previous Politics, Society, Freedom and Equality Case: Brown v. Board of Education (1954)
Next Case: Berman v. Parker (1954)