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Decided: June 3, 2015

The Fourth Circuit affirmed a North Carolina district court’s grant of a motion requesting that the court declare that Defendant’s school district is unitary in compliance with desegregation orders. This case involved two desegregation orders entered in 1970 by a North Carolina district court for Greenville City and Pitt County Board of Education who were operating racially segregated schools. Following the school districts’ initial compliance with the orders, the cases were administratively closed and lay dormant for over thirty-five years until concerns about the School Districts’ consideration of race when devising student assignment plans framed the present dispute. In 2011, Plaintiffs moved to enjoin the implementation of the Board’s 2011-12 student assignment plan, arguing that it failed to move the school district toward unitary status. Defendants filed a motion requesting that the district court declare the school district unitary, which was granted by the district court and rendered Plaintiff’s injunction against the plan moot.

First, the Court addressed whether, procedurally, the district court could have determined unitary status before deciding whether, for the purposes of an injunction, the student assignment plan was a sufficient method for achieving unitary status. Plaintiffs contented that “the district court violated the law of the case by considering the unitary status question before first deciding whether the 2011-12 student assignment plan moved the school district toward that status. According the Fourth Circuit, the burden of proving discriminatory intent shifts to the Plaintiffs when the district court determines that the Board first achieved unitary statuts. Thus, a district court “may assess unitary status before addressing the request for relief that brought the plaintiff before the court in the first place.” Moreover, the district court’s decision to assess unitary status “comports with its obligation to ‘restore state and local authorities to the control of a school system that is operating in compliance with the Constitution.’”

Then, the Court determined whether the district court’s finding that the school district is unitary was of merit. The standard of appellate review on this issue is clear error. The test for determining whether a school district is unitary is a two-prong test: (1) whether the school district “complied in good faith with the desegregation decree since it was entered”; and, (2) whether the district court is satisfied that “the vestiges of past discrimination have been eliminated to the extent practicable.” Weighing the facts presented by both parties against the test provided, the Court found that the school district was unitary.

The dissent disagreed concerning the present unitary nature of the school district. The dissent cited statistical examples that the dissenting judges contended showed a racial imbalance that lingers within the school districts.

Full Opinion

Katie Ramseur