Resource: Breaking Up is Hard to Do: The Dissolution of Judicial Supervision of Public Services

By: Charles R. Wise & Rosemary O'Leary

March 1, 2003

In our 1991 Public Administration Review article, we examined the implications of the U.S. Supreme Court's Missouri v. Jenkins (494 U.S. 33 [1990]) decision for American public administration. In that case, the Court affirmed a federal district court order that imposed local property tax increases for Kansas City, Missouri, residents as a means of raising funds for the local school district's desegregation efforts. Our 1991 article concluded that the decision had empowered and legitimized actions by school administrators, in addition to enhancing the resources available to the school system. The decision, however, severely limited local administrators ability to set priorities and to control the implementation of many administrative initiatives, from contracting the construction of new facilities to hiring new personnel. New management challenges, particularly in the areas of interorganizational relations and accountability, posed constant demands. The article also concluded that by sanctioning court-ordered taxation, Missouri v. Jenkins may also have expanded the new partnership between the courts and public managers--a bipolar relationship--into a "new triumvirate" that includes legislative bodies, but with the courts retaining the senior partnership position.

More than a decade later, this analysis of the Kansas City situation and the Missouri v. Jenkins case is presented with two purposes in mind: first, to study how the impact of the decision has changed in the intervening years, with a particular emphasis on policy termination as the district court has attempted unsuccessfully to remove itself from the case; and second, to glean any new lessons for public administration by taking a longitudinal look. Based on interviews with school district personnel, a former school board member, a former member of the court-appointed desegregation monitoring committee, and residents--supplemented by legal and archival research--we conclude that, once begun, a policy of judicially mandated federal court supervision of public institutions is not readily terminated, even pursuant to the expressed wish of the U.S. Supreme Court. We also conclude that the management implications of long-term judicial control of public institutions are more significant than previous authors have realized.