Cooper v. Aaron 358 U.S. 1 (1958)

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COOPER v. AARON 358 U.S. 1 (1958)

For several years after its decision in brown v. board of education (1954–1955), the Supreme Court gave little guidance or support to the lower courts charged with supervising the desegregation of the public schools. In this case, however, the Court was confronted with direct defiance of Brown by a state's highest officials, and it met that challenge head-on.

Even before the Brown remedial opinion in 1955, the school board of Little Rock, Arkansas, had approved a plan for gradual desegregation of the local schools, and the federal district court had upheld the plan. Just before the opening of the fall 1957 term, the state governor, Orval Faubus, ordered the state's National Guard to keep black children out of Little Rock's Central High School. The attorney general of the United States obtained an injunction against the governor's action, and the children entered the school. A hostile crowd gathered, and the children were removed by the police. President dwight d. eisenhower was thus prodded into his first significant act supporting desegregation; he sent Army troops to Central High to protect the children, and eight black students attended the school for the full academic year.

In February 1958, the school board asked the district court, in Cooper v. Aaron, for a delay of two and one-half years in the implementation of its plan, and in June the court agreed, commenting on the "chaos, bedlam and turmoil" at Central High. In August the federal court of appeals reversed, calling for implementation of the plan on schedule. The Supreme Court, in an unusual move, accelerated the hearing to September 11, and the next day it issued a brief order affirming the decision of the court of appeals. Later the Court published its full opinion, signed by all nine Justices to emphasize their continued unamimous support of Brown.

The opinion dealt quickly with the uncomplicated merits of the case, saying that law and order were not to be achieved at the expense of the constitutional rights of black children. The Court then added a response to the assertion by the Arkansas governor and legislature that the state was not required to abide by Brown, because Brown itself was an unconstitutional assumption of judicial power.

The response scored two easy points first: the Constitution, under the supremacy clause, is "the supreme Law of the Land," and marbury v. madison (1803) had held that it was the province of the judiciary to "say what the law is." The Court's next step, however, was not self-evident: Marbury meant that the federal courts are supreme in expounding the Constitution; thus Brown was the supreme law of the land, binding state officers. This view, which carried the assertion of judicial power further than Marbury had taken it, has been repeated by the Court several times since the Cooper decision.

Cooper's importance, however, was not so much doctrinal as political. It reaffirmed principle at a crucial time. The televised pictures of black children being escorted into school through a crowd of hostile whites galvanized northern opinion. The 1960 election brought to office a president committed to a strong civil rights program—although it took his death to enact that program into law.

Kenneth L. Karst

(see also: Civil Rights Act of 1964.)

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Cooper v. Aaron 358 U.S. 1 (1958)

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