Case: Hobson v. Hansen

66-cv-00082 | U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia

Filed Date: 1966

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Case Summary

The daughter of Julius Hobson, a prominent civil rights activist, attended Washington, D.C.’s public schools. While officially integrated, her school engaged in a number of practices that disproportionately disadvantaged African-Americans, including “tracking” students into different classes based on IQ tests. Convinced that the District’s policies violated the Constitution’s equal protection and due process clauses, Hobson enlisted prominent civil rights attorneys Arthur Kinoy and William Kuns…

The daughter of Julius Hobson, a prominent civil rights activist, attended Washington, D.C.’s public schools. While officially integrated, her school engaged in a number of practices that disproportionately disadvantaged African-Americans, including “tracking” students into different classes based on IQ tests. Convinced that the District’s policies violated the Constitution’s equal protection and due process clauses, Hobson enlisted prominent civil rights attorneys Arthur Kinoy and William Kunstler to mount a comprehensive challenge to de facto segregation in D.C.’s schools. Hobson and other parents filed this lawsuit on behalf of his daughter and others similarly situated against the Superintendent and Board of Education under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. They claimed that:

  1. The district’s tracking system unfairly burdened African-American students;
  2. Predominantly white schools received disproportionately high funding;
  3. School zones were gerrymandered to promote racial segregation; and
  4. African-American teachers and administrators faced employment discrimination.
In addition, Count 1 of plaintiffs’ complaint alleged that school board and superintendent were holding office unlawfully. Washington, D.C.’s school board, an unusual creation of Congress, was made up of members who had been appointed by federal judges under 31 D.C. Code § 101. For many years, the Board had been dominated by Carl F. Hansen, the Superintendent. But by 1967, he faced increasing opposition from younger political activists who wanted a democratically elected Board.

Circuit Judge J. Skelly Wright, a staunch proponent of integration, was assigned to the case by designation. Southern segregationists called him “Judas Wright” for his role in desegregating New Orleans’ schools during his tenure as a Louisiana District Judge. Soon after Hobson filed his complaint, plaintiffs moved for summary judgment and defendants moved to dismiss. But before Judge Wright could address the merits, he had to resolve a jurisdictional question under 28 U.S.C. § 2284: a single judge could not determine the constitutionality of an Act of Congress, as Count 1 of the complaint required. Therefore, Judge Wright requested that a three-judge panel be convened to determine the constitutionality of § 101 on March 25, 1966. 252 F. Supp. 4

Chief Judge Bazelon of the Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit agreed and convened a three-judge panel to hear Count 1 of plaintiffs' complaint. Defendants, possibly eager to seize any opportunity to remove as much of the case as possible from “one of the most liberal judges” in the country, asked Chief Judge Bazelon to assign the entirety of the case to the panel. In a June 1, 1966 order, Chief Judge Bazelon denied defendants’ motion because the other counts were unrelated to Count 1. 256 F. Supp. 18.

On February 9, 1967, the three judge panel issued an opinion upholding the constitutionality of § 101. Judge Charles Fahy wrote that D.C. federal courts have a “dual character” as creations of both Articles I and III that allowed them to exercise non-judicial duties. Alternatively, he found § 101 proper under Article II’s appointments clause. In dissent, Judge Wright expressed concern that § 101 jeopardized the court’s legitimacy by involving it in the political process. 265 F. Supp. 902

On June 19, 1967, Judge Wright resolved plaintiffs’ remaining claims. Based on comprehensive empirical data, Judge Wright found that:

  • Predominantly African-American schools were overcrowded and underfunded in comparison to majority white schools;
  • The “optional zones” policy was used as a tool to let white students transfer out of majority African-American schools;
  • The District disfavored African-American teachers and administrators in hiring; and
  • The district’s tracking system placed unfair burdens on African-American students.
Next, Judge Wright held that the equal protection clause as applied to public schools “is in full sweep a component” of the Fifth Amendment’s due process clause.

Finally, Judge Wright:

  • Enjoined the District’s tracking system;
  • Abolished certain optional zones;
  • Ordered the District to create a busing plan to relieve overcrowding and reduce inequalities in funding levels; and
  • Ordered the District to create a teacher assignment plan to integrate the teaching force.
In conclusion, he lamented that “the Washington school system is a monument to the cynicism of the power structure which governs the voteless capital.” 269 F. Supp. 401

The school board rejected Hansen’s request to appeal. That same month, Columbia University Professor A. H. Passow published a report that detailed systematic inadequacies across the D.C. schools. Its recommendations, including abolishing the tracking system and instituting busing, closely paralleled Judge Wright’s order. Hansen resigned, and the Board filed a preliminary report of compliance on January 2, 1968.

Nevertheless, Hansen and Carl Smuck, one of Hansen’s supporters on the Board, moved to intervene personally under Fed. R. Civ. P. 24. They requested a stay and filed a notice of appeal, which was followed by similar motions from local parents and a teacher. The court of appeals remanded the question of intervention to Judge Wright.

On February 19, 1968, Judge Wright issued an opinion denying the stay but granting the motion to intervene. Most of the opinion explained why intervention was improper: the parents “have not offered any evidence of any kind to demonstrate their interest,” and the court’s order “has no effect on [Hansen] whatever.” However, Judge Wright approved intervention so that the Court of Appeals could answer “the questions...on the merits.” 44 F.R.D. 18

Meanwhile, Congress provided for election of Board members on April 22, 1968. Hobson, supported by unions and affluent activists, and Anita Allen, supported by civic and religious groups, competed for leadership of the newly elected board. Neither gained a decisive advantage. However, the District's center of power shifted from the Superintendent to the newly assertive Board.

Litigation continued as well. The court of appeals upheld Judge Wright’s merits decision on January 21, 1969. Chief Judge Bazelon determined that intervention by Hansen and Smuck was improper but allowed the parents to remain in the suit to defend “freedom” of action by the newly elected school board. The court then examined Judge Wright’s injunction and found that it did not overly restrict the Board. Judge Danaher dissented. He argued that the judiciary could identify de facto segregation but policies to address it should be “formulated by the elected Board.” 408 F.2d 175.

However, progress was hindered by continuing strife within the District’s top leadership. Allen forced through an Academic Achievement Plan designed to raise reading and math scores to the national averages. Her failure to consult in advance with the unions led to threats of strikes, and the Board refused to appoint her preferred candidate as superintendent. Violence also skyrocketed: there were robberies and muggings in schools, and a student murdered an assistant principal. By 1972, Allen had been removed by election, and the new board attempted to heal its internal divisions.

The deficiencies in the schools engendered confusion and resentment. Acting Superintendent Henley reported at one staff meeting that “the track system has been eliminated, I hope.” Relations between Hobson and school administrators broke down, with Hobson referring to the latter as “incompetent” and “hacks.” Hobson also speculated that Judge Wright had become frustrated with the lack of progress and “tried to get out” of the case until a personal appeal from Chief Justice Warren Burger persuaded the judge to stay. In turn, a Board member described continuing allegations that the majority African-American administration discriminated against African-Americans as “ludicrous.”

Over the following years, the district court heard a number of complaints alleging that the District had violated certain aspects of the injunction. In three opinions, the court:

  • Ordered the District to “reconsider” a new boundary line drawn when a new school opened that resulted in the two area schools having 88% and 72% African-American student bodies, 320 F. Supp. 409 (1970),
  • Found that the District violated the injunction by “knowingly” reassigning the junior high school into which two elementaries fed in a way that would segregate one of the District’s “few remaining” integrated schools, 320 F. Supp. 720 (1970), and
  • Required that no school's per-pupil expenditures differ from the average by more than 5% to alleviate a persistent funding problem in predominantly African-American schools. 327 F. Supp. 844 (1971).

In 1972, the Superintendent decried the injunction as "detrimental" to the district’s morale, planning, and services. Nevertheless, the Board hired Hobson as an advisor to keep it in compliance with court orders. D.C.’s schools remain deeply segregated by race.

Four years later, the Supreme Court rejected African American firefighters’ equal protection challenge to a skills test used by Washington, D.C.’s fire department, which they claimed had a discriminatory effect. The Court held that a law is not unconstitutional merely because it has a disproportionate impact. Washington v. Davis, 426 U.S. 229 (1976). This opinion undercut much of the analysis in Hobson v. Hansen and limited the viability of future equal protection challenges to school district policies that disadvantaged minority groups.

Cuban, Larry. Hobson v. Hansen: A Study in Organizational Response. 1975.

Hobson v. Hansen, 252 F. Supp. 4 (D.D.C. 1966)

Hobson v. Hansen, 256 F. Supp. 18 (D.C. Cir. 1966)

Hobson v. Hansen, 265 F. Supp. 902 (D.D.C. 1967)

Hobson v. Hansen, 269 F. Supp. 401 (D.D.C. 1967)

Hobson v. Hasen, 44 F.R.D. 18 (D.D.C. 1968)

Smuck v. Hobson, 408 F.2d 175 (D.C. Cir. 1969)

Hobson v. Hansen, 320 F. Supp. 409 (D.D.C. 1970)

Hobson v. Hansen, 320 F. Supp. 720 (D.D.C. 1970)

Hobson v. Hansen, 327 F. Supp. 844 (D.D.C. 1971)

Judge J. Skelly Wright, Segregation Foe, Dies at 77. The New York Times. Aug. 8, 1988.

Washington v. Davis, 426 U.S. 229 (1976)

Summary Authors

Timothy Leake (2/6/2019)

Related Cases

Bolling v. Sharpe, District of Columbia (1950)

People


Judge(s)

Bazelon, David L. (District of Columbia)

Fahy, Charles (District of Columbia)

Leventhal, Harold (District of Columbia)

McGowan, Carl E. (District of Columbia)

Miller, Wilbur Kingsbury (District of Columbia)

Robinson, Deborah A. (District of Columbia)

Wright, James Skelly (District of Columbia)

Judge(s)

Bazelon, David L. (District of Columbia)

Fahy, Charles (District of Columbia)

Leventhal, Harold (District of Columbia)

McGowan, Carl E. (District of Columbia)

Miller, Wilbur Kingsbury (District of Columbia)

Robinson, Deborah A. (District of Columbia)

Wright, James Skelly (District of Columbia)

Documents in the Clearinghouse

Document

Opinion

252 F.Supp. 4

March 25, 1966 Order/Opinion

Order

256 F.Supp. 18

June 1, 1966 Order/Opinion

Opinion

265 F.Supp. 902

Feb. 9, 1967 Order/Opinion

Order and Opinion

269 F.Supp. 401

June 19, 1967 Order/Opinion

Opinion

44 F.R.D. 18

Feb. 19, 1968 Order/Opinion

Order and Opinion

Smuck v. Hobson

U. S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit

408 F.2d 175

Jan. 21, 1969 Order/Opinion

Order and Opinion

320 F.Supp. 409

Dec. 14, 1970 Order/Opinion

Order and Opinion

320 F.Supp. 720

Dec. 22, 1970 Order/Opinion

Order and Opinion

327 F.Supp. 844

May 25, 1971 Order/Opinion

Docket

Last updated May 12, 2022

Docket sheet not available via the Clearinghouse.

State / Territory: District of Columbia

Case Type(s):

School Desegregation

Key Dates

Filing Date: 1966

Case Ongoing: No

Plaintiffs

Plaintiff Description:

Parents on behalf of African-American students in Washington, D.C. public schools.

Plaintiff Type(s):

Private Plaintiff

Public Interest Lawyer: Yes

Filed Pro Se: No

Class Action Sought: No

Class Action Outcome: Not sought

Defendants

The Board of Education of the District of Columbia (Washington, District of Columbia), School District

Superintendent of Schools of the District of Columbia (Washington, District of Columbia), School District

Defendant Type(s):

Jurisdiction-wide

Elementary/Secondary School

Case Details

Causes of Action:

42 U.S.C. § 1983

Constitutional Clause(s):

Due Process

Availably Documents:

Injunctive (or Injunctive-like) Relief

Any published opinion

Outcome

Prevailing Party: Plaintiff

Nature of Relief:

Injunction / Injunctive-like Settlement

Declaratory Judgment

Source of Relief:

Litigation

Order Duration: 1967 - None

Content of Injunction:

Busing

Student assignment

Discrimination Prohibition

Develop anti-discrimination policy

Other requirements regarding hiring, promotion, retention

Issues

General:

Disparate Impact

Disparate Treatment

Education

Racial segregation

School/University Facilities

School/University policies

Staff (number, training, qualifications, wages)

Discrimination-basis:

Race discrimination

Race:

Black