McNeese v. Board of Education for Community Unit School District 187 Cahokia Illinois/Opinion of the Court

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Opinion of the Court
Dissenting Opinion

United States Supreme Court

373 U.S. 668

McNeese  v.  Board of Education for Community Unit School District 187 Cahokia Illinois

 Argued: April 23, 1963. --- Decided: June 3, 1963

This suit, which invokes the jurisdiction of the District Court under the Civil Rights Act, is brought to vindicate the rights of plaintiffs who are Negro students in the Illinois public school system. The complaint alleges that Chenot School, St. Clair County, was built and its attendance area boundaries drawn in 1957 so as to make it exclusively a Negro school. It alleges that due to overcrowded conditions in an adjacent school, Centreville, which is in the same school district, all fifth and sixth grade classes in that school (containing 97% white students) were transferred to Chenot and kept segregated there. It alleges that enrollment at Chenot consists of 251 Negroes and 254 whites, all of the whites being in the group transferred from Centreville. It alleges that Negro students, with the exception of the eight transferred from Centreville, attend classes in one part of the school, separate and apart from the whites, and are compelled to use entrances and exits separate from the whites'. It alleges that Chenot school is a segregated school in conflict with the Constitution of the United States; and it prays for equitable relief, including registration of plaintiffs in racially integrated schools pursuant to a plan approved by the District Court.

Respondents moved to dismiss the complaint on the ground, inter alia, that the plaintiffs had not exhausted the administrative remedies provided by Illinois law. The District Court granted the motion. D.C., 199 F.Supp. 403. The Court of Appeals affirmed. 7 Cir., 305 F.2d 783. The case is here on a petition for a writ of certiorari which we granted. 371 U.S. 933, 83 S.Ct. 307, 9 L.Ed.2d 269.

The administrative remedy, which the lower courts held plaintiffs must first exhaust, is contained in the Illinois School Code. IllRev.Stat.1961, c. 122, § 22-19. By that Code, 50 residents of a school district or 10%, whichever is lesser, can file a complaint with the Superintendent of Public Instruction alleging that a pupil has been segregated in a school on account of race. The Superintendent, on notice to the school board, puts the complaint down for hearing within a prescribed time. After hearing, the Superintendent notifies the parties of his decision and, if he decides that the allegations in the complaint are 'substantially correct,' requests the Attorney General to bring suit to rectify the practice. Any final decision of the Superintendent may be reviewed by the courts. Moreover, under the School Code a school district may not file a claim for state aid unless it files with the Superintendent a sworn statement that the school district has complied with the constitutional and statutory provisions outlawing segregation in the public schools. See Ill.Const., Art. VIII, § 1; School Code §§ 10-22:5, 22-11, 22-12.

Respondents, while saying that Illinois law does not require the Superintendent to refuse to certify claims for state aid if he finds the particular school board practices segregation, contends that the Superintendent would have the power to withhold his certificate and as a practical matter would do so.

We have previously indicated that relief under the Civil Rights Act may not be defeated because relief was not first sought under state law which provided a remedy. We stated in Monroe v. Pape, 365 U.S. 167, 183, 81 S.Ct. 473, 482, 5 L.Ed.2d 492: SU 'It is no answer that the State has a law which if enforced would give relief. The federal remedy is supplementary to the state remedy, and the latter need not be first sought and refused before the federal one is invoked.'

The cause of action alleged here [1] is pleaded in terms of R.S. § 1979, 42 U.S.C. § 1983, which reads:

'Every person who, under color of any statute, ordinance, regulation, custom, or usage, of any State or Territory, subjects, or causes to be subjected, any citizen of the United States or other person within the jurisdiction thereof to the deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws, shall be liable to the party injured in an action at law, suit in equity, or other proper proceeding for redress.'

That is the statute that was involved in Monroe v. Pape, supra; and we reviewed its history at length in that case. 365 U.S., at 171 et seq., 81 S.Ct., at 475 et seq. The purposes were severalfold-to override certain kinds of state laws, to provide a remedy where state law was inadequate, 'to provide a federal remedy where the state remedy, though adequate in theory, was not available in practice' (id., 174, 81 S.Ct. 477), and to provide a remedy in the federal courts supplementary to any remedy any State might have. Id., 180-183, 81 S.Ct. 480-482.

We would defeat those purposes if we held that assertion of a federal claim in a federal court must await an attempt to vindicate the same claim in a state court. The First Congress created federal courts as the chief-though not always the exclusive-tribunals for enforcement of federal rights. The heads of jurisdiction of the District Court, at the start limited, [2] are now numerous. In the beginning the main concern was the security of commercial intercourse, which 'parochial prejudice' might endanger. [3]

'Maritime commerce was then the jugular vein of the Thirteen States. The need for a body of law applicable throughout the nation was recognized by every shade of opinion in the Constitutional Convention. From this recognition it was an easy step to entrust the development of such law to a distinctive system of courts, administering the same doctrines, following the same procedure, and subject to the same nationalist influences.' [4]

As the beneficiaries of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments became articulate and the nationalist needs multiplied, the heads of jurisdiction of the District Courts increased, and that increase was a measure of the broadening federal domain in the area of individual rights.

Where strands of local law are woven into the case that is before the federal court, we have directed a District Court to refrain temporarily from exercising its jurisdiction until a suit could be brought in the state court. See Railroad Comm'n of Texas v. Pullman Co., 312 U.S. 496, 61 S.Ct. 643, 85 L.Ed. 971; Thompson v. Magnolia Petroleum Co., 309 U.S. 478, 60 S.Ct. 628, 84 L.Ed. 876; Harrison v. N.A.A.C.P., 360 U.S. 167, 79 S.Ct. 1025, 3 L.Ed.2d 1152. Thus we have stayed the hands of a Federal District Court when it sought to enjoin enforcement of a state administrative order enforcing state law, since any federal question could be reviewed when the cases came here through the hierarchy of state courts. Burford v. Sun Oil Co., 319 U.S. 315, 63 S.Ct. 1098, 87 L.Ed. 1424. The variations on the theme have been numerous. [5]

We have, however, in the present case no underlying issue of state law controlling this litigation. The right alleged is as plainly federal in origin and nature as those vindicated in Brown v. Board of Education, 347 U.S. 483, 74 S.Ct. 686, 98 L.Ed. 873. Nor is the federal right in any way entangled in a skein of state law that must be untangled before the federal case can proceed. For petitioners assert that respondents have been and are depriving them of rights protected by the Fourteenth Amendment. It is immaterial whether respondents' conduct is legal or illegal as a matter of state law. Monroe v. Pape, supra, 365 U.S., at 171 187, 81 S.Ct., at 475-484. Such claims are entitled to be adjudicated in the federal courts. [6] Monroe v. Pape, supra, 365 U.S. at 183, 81 S.Ct. at 481; Gayle v. Browder, 352 U.S. 903, 77 S.Ct. 145, 1 L.Ed.2d 114, affirming 142 F.Supp. 707; Borders v. Rippy, 5 Cir., 247 F.2d 268, 271. Cf., e.g., Lane v. Wilson, 307 U.S. 268, 59 S.Ct. 872, 83 L.Ed. 1281; Smith v. Allwright, 321 U.S. 649, 64 S.Ct. 757, 88 L.Ed. 987; Schnell v. Davis, 336 U.S. 933, 69 S.Ct. 749, 93 L.Ed. 1093, affirming 81 F.Supp. 872; Turner v. Memphis, 369 U.S. 350, 82 S.Ct. 805, 7 L.Ed.2d 762.

Moreover, it is by no means clear that Illinois law provides petitioners with an administrative remedy sufficiently adequate to preclude prior resort to a federal court for protection of their federal rights. Under § 22-19 of the Illinois School Code petitioners could file a complaint alleging discrimination if they could obtain the subscription of the lesser of 50 residents or 10% of the school district. The Superintendent would then be required to hold a hearing on the matter. And,

'If he so determines (that the allegations of the complaint are substantially correct), he shall request the Attorney General to apply to the appropriate circuit court for such injunctive or other relief as may be necessary to rectify the practice complained of.' (Emphasis added.)

The Superintendent himself apparently has no power to order corrective action. In other words, his 'only function * * * is to investigate, recommend and report. (He) can give no remedy. (He) can made no controlling finding of law or fact. (His) recommendation need not be followed by any court * * * or executive officer.' United States Alkali Export Ass'n v. United States, 325 U.S. 196, 210, 65 S.Ct. 1120, 1128, 89 L.Ed. 1554. It would be anomalous to conclude that such a remedy forecloses suit in the federal courts when the most it could produce is a state court action that would have no such effect. See Lane v. Wilson, supra, at 274-275, 59 S.Ct. at 875-876; Monroe v. Pape, supra.

Respondents urge, however, that prior resort to the Superintendent is necessary because by § 2-3.25 he can revoke recognition of a school district guilty of violating pupils' Fourteenth Amendment rights, and recognition is a necessary condition to state financial aid. Furthermore, state aid cannot be received by a district unless it submits a sworn statement that it does not discriminate between students 'on account of color, creed, race or nationality.' §§ 10-22.5, 18-12. Respondents say that the Superintendent would not certify a district for state aid if he determined that its sworn statement was false Apparently no Illinois cases have held that the Superintendent has authority to withhold funds once he has received an affidavit from the district, even if he determines that the affidavit is false. In any event, the withholding of state aid is at best only an indirect sanction of Fourteenth Amendment rights. When federal rights are subject to such tenuous protection, prior resort to a state proceeding is not necessary. See Hillsborough v. Cromwell, 326 U.S. 620, 625-626, 66 S.Ct. 445, 90 L.Ed. 358.


Mr. Justice HARLAN, dissenting.


  1. Federal jurisdiction is asserted under 28 U.S.C. § 1343, which in material part reads as follows:
  2. General 'arising under' jurisdiction was not conferred on federal courts of first instance until passage of the Judiciary Act of 1875, 18 Stat. 470. See Hart and Wechsler, The Federal Courts and the Federal System, 727-733.
  3. Frankfurter and Landis, The Business of the Supreme Court (1928), pp. 8-9.
  4. Id., p. 7.
  5. See Note, 59 Col.L.Rev. 749. Yet where Congress creates a head of federal jurisdiction which entails a responsibility to adjudicate the claim on the basis of state law, viz., diversity of citizenship, as was true in Meredith v. Winter Haven, 320 U.S. 228, 64 S.Ct. 7, 88 L.Ed. 9, we hold that difficulties and perplexities of state law are no reason for referral of the problem to the state court:
  6. As well stated by Judge Murrah in Stapleton v. Mitchell, 60 F.Supp. 51, 55, appeal dismissed pursuant to stipulation, 326 U.S. 690, 66 S.Ct. 172, 90 L.Ed. 406: 'We yet like to believe that wherever the Federal courts sit, human rights under the Federal Constitution are always a proper subject for adjudication, and that we have not the right to decline the exercise of that jurisdiction simply because the rights asserted may be adjudicated in some other forum.'

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it is a work of the United States federal government (see 17 U.S.C. 105).