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Bolling v. Sharpe 347 U.S. 497 (1954)

BOLLING v. SHARPE 347 U.S. 497 (1954)

In the four cases now known as brown v. board of education (1954), the Supreme Court held that racial segregation of children in state public schools violated the fourteenth amendment's guarantee of the equal protection of the laws. Bolling, a companion case to Brown, involved a challenge to school segregation in the district of columbia. The equal protection clause applies only to the states. However, in previous cases (including the japanese american cases, 1943–1944) the Court had assumed, at least for argument, that the Fifth Amendment's guarantee of due process of law prohibited arbitrary discrimination by the federal government.

The Court in Bolling also drew on obiter dicta in the Japanese American Cases stating that racial classifications were suspect, requiring exacting judicial scrutiny. Because school segregation was "not reasonably related to any proper governmental objective," the District's practice deprived the segregated black children of liberty without due process. Chief Justice earl warren wrote for a unanimous Court.

The Court concluded its Fifth Amendment discussion by remarking that because Brown had prohibited school segregation by the states, "it would be unthinkable that the same Constitution would impose a lesser duty on the Federal Government." Critics have suggested that what was "unthinkable" was the political implication of a contrary decision. But the notions of liberty and equality have long been understood to overlap. The idea of national citizenship implies a measure of equal treatment by the national government, and the "liberty" protected by the Fifth Amendment's due process clause implies a measure of equal liberties. Doctrinally as well as politically, a contrary decision in Bolling would have been unthinkable.

Kenneth L. Karst
(1986)

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