Minneapolis Public Schools’ Desegregation/Integration Litigation, 1978-1983

As described in a prior post, from 1971 through 1977, the Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS) were subject to an order to desegregate/integrate its schools and to semiannual court and, therefore, public scrutiny of its compliance with that order. This was an order by Minnesota’s U.S. District Court. (To the left is a photo of the Minneapolis Federal Office Building and U.S. Courthouse, 100 4th Street South, that was the site of this entire litigation. Today it is the Hennepin County Family Justice Center.)

In or about 1978 the MPS School Board, frustrated by the continued bad publicity generated by the case,  decided to hire me as its outside attorney for the case with the objective of having the court end the litigation on the ground that the MPS had done everything that a federal court legitimately could require it to do.[1]

The first such effort was unsuccessful.

In early 1978 I filed a MPS motion to terminate the litigation that was based on the then recent U.S. Supreme Court decision in Dayton v. Brinkman, 433 U.S. 406 (1977) that held the permissible court injunction in the Dayton, Ohio school desegregation case was limited to eliminating the “incremental segregative effect” of its constitutional violations.

The Minnesota court, however, distinguished the Dayton case and denied the MPS motion on the ground that it had not yet fully implemented its desegregation/integration plan. The court also rejected a MPS proposal to address concerns of the Native American community that will be explored in a subsequent post. [2]

In addition, the court in its May 1978 order rejected the MPS request to increase the allowable maximum minority enrollment in each school to 50% and to eliminate the single minority ceiling requirement. The court did say it had “never regarded the percentage figures [in its orders] as rigid requirements” and that it had set the percentage “guidelines at approximately 20% above the projected total minority student population.” The court then went on to modify its injunction to increase the maximum total minority student of each school to 46% (an increase of 4%) and a single minority’s maximum percentage to 39%(also an increase of 4%).

The MPS then took its only appeal in the 12 years of this litigation. But the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit held that that the district court had not abused its discretion in denying the motion to terminate the case. The appellate court, therefore, affirmed the district court’s decision[3]

The MPS then made its only application to the U.S. Supreme Court to review the case. Two of the petition’s three arguments for such review were that the decisions in the lower courts conflicted with, and misapplied (1) the Supreme Court’s holding that desegregation decrees must be limited to eliminating incremental segregative effect of constitutional violations; and (2) that Court’s allowing modification of desegregation decrees where new circumstances of law or fact had arisen.[4]

The Supreme Court, however, refused to do so.[5]

The second and third efforts to end the case also were unsuccessful.[6]

The fourth motion to terminate the injunction and end the case, however, was granted by Judge Larson on June 8, 1983.[7] The court did so despite opposition by the plaintiffs, who later decided through their attorney, Charles Quaintance, Jr., not to seek a rehearing in the district court or an appeal to the Eighth Circuit.[8]

Dr. Richard Green

Afterwards the MPS Superintendent Richard Green said the decision was “a major moment in the history of the district” and that the MPS would “continue to work with the state department of education [with respect to its desegregation regulations] to show the good faith that was demonstrated by the court.” Green also said the court order had “created a climate for change in the school system that led to better-quality schools.” He specifically mentioned the change from neighborhood schools to ones that drew students from many parts of the city; the increase in student busing; and the creation of alternative programs, including “magnet” schools.[9]

Dr. Green wrote a personal note to me about the end of the litigation. He said, “Without question, the Minneapolis community has now met one of the major tests for equality, and my sense is that your leadership has been a crucial factor.”[10]

I certainly appreciated that kind compliment even though I thought it was unjustified. The successful desegregation/integration of the MPS was due to the efforts of many students, parents, teachers and administrators and of the School Board. The leadership of Dr. Green was the crucial ingredient, and his skills were recognized in 1988 when he became the Chancellor of the New York City Public Schools, the first African-American to hold that position.

I was very saddened when Dr. Green died of asthma in 1989 at the age of 53 after only 14 months as Chancellor.[11] He was honored by a memorial service at the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine in Manhattan with a eulogy by then New York City Mayor Edward Koch.

Being the lawyer for the MPS in this litigation obviously was an important professional and civic responsibility and challenge. The MPS was committed to desegregation/integration and to respect for the law and the court’s orders, and yet it wanted to terminate the case. I personally shared these values and commitments and drew inspiration from these words of Learned Hand, one of the preeminent jurists in U.S. history:

  • “[A] society so riven that the spirit of moderation is gone, no court can save; . . . a society where that sprit flourishes, no court need save; . . . in a society which evades its responsibility by thrusting upon the courts the nuture of that spirit, that spirit in the end will perish. What is the spirit of moderation? It is the temper which does not press a partisan advantage to its bitter end, which can understand and will respect the other side, which feels a unity between all citizens . . . which recognizes their common fate and their common aspirations–in a word, which has faith in the sacredness of the individual. . . . [Such a temper and such a faith] are the last flowers of civilization, delicate and easily overrun by the weeds of our sinful human nature . . . . [They] must have the vigor within themselves to withstand the winds and weather of an indifferent and ruthless world; and that it is idle to seek shelter for them in a courtroom. Men must take that temper and that faith with them into the field, into the market-place, into the factory, into the council-room, into their homes; they cannot be imposed; they must be lived. Words will not express them; arguments will not clarify them; decisions will not maintain them. They are the fruit of the wisdom that comes of trial and a pure heart; no one can possess them who has not stood in awe of this mysterious Universe; no one can possess them whom that spectacle has not purged through pity and through fear–pity for the pride and folly which inexorably enmesh men in toils of their own contriving; fear, because that same pride and that same folly lie deep in the recesses of his own soul.”[12]

[1] I have donated my papers relating to this case to the Minnesota Historical Society Libray, St. Paul, Minnesota.

[2] Booker v. Special School District No. 1, 451 F. Supp. 659 (D. Minn. 1978). Four months later, in another case In which I represented the MPS, the same district court granted judgment for the MPS in a challenge to the constitutionality of the MPS decision to close Longfellow School in the southern part of the city. (Hernandez v. Special School Dist. No. 1, No, 4-78-349 (D. Minn. Sept. 13, 1978).)

[3] Booker v. Special School District No. 1, 585 F.2d 347 (8th Cir. 1978).

[4] Petition for Writ of Certiorari, Special School District No. 1 v. Booker (No. 78-__ Sup. Ct. Nov. 10, 1978). The third reason for review relating to the issues regarding Native Americans that will be reviewed in a subsequent post.

[5] Booker v. Special School District No. 1, 433 U.S. 915 (1979).

[6]  Memo Order, Booker v. Special School District No. 1, (D. Minn. May 1, 1980); Memo Order, Booker v. Special School District No. 1, (D. Minn. June 22, 1982). On December 17, 1982 after a semiannual MPS report had been submitted to the court, the MPS Superintendent Richard R. Green sent me a note thanking me on behalf of “the entire School District and community” for my “contribution” in helping the MPS to report total compliance with the court order.

[7] Memo Order, Booker v. Special School District No. 1, (D. Minn. June 8, 1983).

[8]  During the five years of my representation of the MPS in this case, Quaintance and I were professional adversaries without any other relationship. In recent years, however, as fellow members of Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church, we have become friends.

[9] Paulu, Judge Larson ends court jurisdiction in city public schools’ desegregation, Mpls. Star & Trib. (June 9, 1983); Pinney, Case kept desegregation effort aimed toward stability, Mpls. Star & Trib. (June 9, 1983).

[10] Letter, Dr. Richard R. Green to Duane Krohnke (June 16, 1983).

[11] A park in Brooklyn, New York was named in his honor.

[12] Learned Hand, The Sprit of Liberty, at 164-65 (3d ed.; Univ. Chicago Press; Chicago 1977).

Minnesota’s Federal Court

Federal Courthouse, Minneapolis
Courtroom, Federal Courthouse, Minneapolis

The United States District Court for the District of Minnesota is the federal court in the State. It and the 93 other U.S. district courts are the trial courts of the federal court system. Within limits set by Congress and the Constitution, the district courts have jurisdiction to hear nearly all categories of federal cases, including both civil and criminal matters.[1]

The Minnesota federal court has four federal courthouses in St. Paul, Minneapolis, Duluth and Fergus Falls although the last one does not have any regularly assigned federal judges.[2]

The Minnesota court has seven judgeships authorized by federal statutes. There are 670 other such federal district court judgeships in the U.S. All of the people who hold these judgeships are appointed for life by the President of the U.S. after advice and consent of the U.S. Senate.[3] They exercise the full powers of the district courts.

Five of the seven U.S. District Judges for the Minnesota court have their chambers at the Minneapolis federal courthouse; they are Joan N. Ericksen, Michael J. Davis, John R. Tunheim, Patrick J. Schiltz and Ann D. Montgomery. In the St. Paul federal courthouse they are Donovan W. Frank and Susan Richard Nelson. They are joined by four Senior U.S. District Judges, who also continue to take cases: Donald D. Alsop, Paul A. Magnuson and Richard H. Kyle in St. Paul and David S. Doty in Minneapolis.[4]

The Court also has nine United States Magistrate Judges, who are appointed by the Judges of the U.S. District Court for a term of eight years and who are eligible for reappointment to successive terms. The Magistrate Judges at the U. S. District Court in St. Paul are Janie S. Mayerson, Jeanne J. Graham, Jeffrey J. Keyes and Tony N. Leung; at the Minneapolis federal courthouse they are Arthur J. Boylan (Senior Magistrate Judge), Franklin L. Noel and Steven F. Rau. Leo J. Brisbois serves in the Duluth federal courthouse; and Mary Kay Klein is part-time in Bemidji.[5] The magistrate judges have more limited roles then the judges and may try cases only with the consent of the parties.[6]

In 1986 the District Court appointed District Judge Diana E. Murphy and me as co-chairs of the Bicentennial of the Constitution Committee for the District of Minnesota. We produced a history of the Court and sponsored and organized a seminar on constitutional law, a lecture and discussion on “Religion and the Constitution” and videotaped interviews of the sitting judges.[7]


[1] United States Courts, District courts, http://www.uscourts.gov/FederalCourts/; 28 U.S.C. ch. 85 (jurisdiction). The more populous states have more than one federal district court. For example, the State of New York has four: Northern, Southern, Eastern and Western Districts. (28 U.S.C. § 112.)

[2] U.S. Dist. Ct., D. Minn., Courthouses, http://www.mnd.uscourts.gov/Courthouses.shtml.

[3] U.S. Dist. Ct., D. Minn., Judges, http://www.mnd.uscourts.gov/judges.shtml; United States Courts, Federal Judgeships, http://www.uscourts.gov/JudgesAndJudgeships/.

[4]  Id.

[5]  Id.

[6] 28 U.S.C. ch.43.

[7]  Murphy & Krohnke, The Minnesota Federal Court Embarks on Bicentennial Projects, Hennepin Lawyer, May-June 1987 at 10; History of the U.S. Court for the District of Minnesota (1989),   http://www.mnd.uscourts.gov/History. Since October 1994, Judge Murphy has been a U.S. Circuit Judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit, which handles appeals from the Minnesota federal court as well as the federal district courts in North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Missouri and Arkansas. (Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals Judges, http://www.ca8.uscourts.gov/newcoa/judge.htm; 28 U.S.C. § 41; 28 U.S.C. ch. 83.) Appeals from the Eighth Circuit go to the U.S. Supreme Court when the latter agrees to take the case. (28 U.S.C. § 1254.)