Milliken v. Bradley

Following is the case brief for Milliken v. Bradley, 418 U.S. 717 (1974)

Case Summary of Milliken v. Bradley:

  • The Detroit branch of the NAACP brought suit in federal court because of the continuing segregation in Detroit’s public schools.
  • The District Court, noting that Detroit’s segregation was due to State-imposed action, adopted a desegregation plan that included the 53 districts surrounding Detroit, as well as Detroit itself.
  • The Court of Appeals affirmed the District Court’s multi-district desegregation plan in part.
  • The U.S. Supreme Court, however, reversed, holding that other school districts could not be a part of a desegregation remedy unless they too were guilty of segregation policies, or if there was inter-district segregation as a result of the segregation in Detroit.

Milliken v. Bradley Case Brief

Statement of the Facts:

A branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) brought a class action, claiming that the Detroit public school system is segregated because of State and local policies.  The NAACP sought a plan to end segregation in the schools.

The District Court concluded that the Detroit Board of Education did engage in activities that perpetuated school segregation.  It thus ordered both the creation of a Detroit-only desegregation plan, and desegregation plan that encompassed the surrounding three-county metropolitan area.

Even though there was no claim that the schools in the surrounding metropolitan area had a segregation problem in their school systems, the District Court adopted a plan for desegregation that encompassed 53 of the 85 school districts surrounding Detroit as well as the Detroit school district itself.

Procedural History:

  • The District Court ordered the Detroit Board of Education to acquire almost 300 buses to handle transportation for the busing needed to implement the metropolitan area desegregation plan
  • The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed in part, finding that including the surrounding metropolitan area was the only feasible way to accomplish desegregation, yet it remanded to allow for the affected school districts to have an opportunity to be heard before the District Court, and it vacated the order to acquire the buses.
  • The U.S. Supreme Court granted certiorari.

Issue and Holding:

Can a federal court impose a multi-district remedy when there is only evidence of a single district engaging in activities that perpetuated segregation in schools?  No.


The decision of the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals is reversed and remanded.

Rule of Law or Legal Principle Applied:

If a single school district has policies that have perpetuated school segregation, then it is not appropriate to impose a remedy that includes other districts when those other districts do not have a segregation issue in their schools.


In essence, the evidence showed that the segregation problem was only in Detroit.  Therefore, the District Court went too far in fashioning a remedy that included other districts, where there was no evidence of segregation policies in those schools.  The lower courts were wrong in the following ways:

  1. Desegregation does not require racial balance.  Under Swann v. Board of Education, 402 U.S. 1, all that is required is a desegregation plan that eliminates a dual school system.
  2. Local control of school districts has some importance, thus a multi-district remedy cannot simply ignore district lines.
  3. A multi-district remedy dramatically alters the way education is provided in the State, and it improperly puts the District Court in the position of legislative authority and school superintendent rolled into one. The court is not qualified for those roles and, in turn, it takes away local control, which is where school decisions should really be made.
  4. Before including other districts into a remedy, there should be a showing that the offending district has some effect on perpetuating segregation in those other districts.

Concurring and Dissenting Opinions:

Concurring Opinion (Stewart):

There was no showing at all that the districts outside Detroit had segregation problems, only that those schools had a higher proportion of white students.  Mere difference in racial composition does not mean there is a violation of equal protection.  Simply, the equitable powers of the court do not go so far as to approve a remedy that goes beyond Detroit when the constitutional violation at issue occurred solely within Detroit.

Dissenting Opinion (Douglas):

The multi-district remedy here is no different with schools than it would be with a sewage problem, water problem, or energy problem.  Multi-district solutions are common.  The inner core of Detroit is predominantly black, and that area of the city is likely to be poorer.  The Court’s decision now makes sure that the schools in Detroit will not only be “separate,” but “inferior.”

Dissenting Opinion (White):

The Court does not deny that those in charge of the Michigan public schools engaged in practices calculated to effect the segregation in the Detroit school system.  While the Court acknowledges the federal court’s obligation to fashion a remedy, it cripples its ability to perform the task by holding that segregation remedies must stop at the school district line.  Undue administrative inconvenience is not enough to justify halting a desegregation remedy.  But the Court has now allowed Michigan, and likely most States, to insulate themselves from their duty to desegregate public schools.

Dissenting Opinion (Marshall):

The rights at issue are too fundamental to be abridged on something so superficial as school district lines.  The State of Michigan has created segregated schools in Detroit, and now the State has an obligation to remove all vestiges of racial segregation.  That cannot be done without involving the districts outside of Detroit.  The Court was making small but meaningful steps towards the promise made in Brown v. Board of Education over the last 20 years.  This case shows the Court taking a huge step backwards.


Milliken v. Bradley marks the time when the Court took a step back from the sweeping promise of Brown v. Board of Education.  Up to this case, the equitable remedies allowed by the Court included quotas, busing, and redistricting of single-race districts.  However, in this case, redistricting integrated districts was considered a step too far.

Student Resources:

Read the Full Court Opinion

Listen to the Oral Arguments