WASHINGTON — THE Supreme Court retreated further this week from still another field of contention - school desegregation.
The practical impact is that school districts can win easier release now from federal court desegregation orders.
These are the orders that fueled the great busing controversies that have riven communities and made over public school systems in the past quarter century.
A Supreme Court decision Tuesday allowed an Atlanta school district with a history of racial segregation to cast off federal court supervision in stages.
Previous practice has been for districts to remain under court control until they met all the court's conditions for ending segregation.
Attorneys on both sides of this question expect this new decision to encourage more school districts to seek release from court control. "In practice, they've allowed a substantial cutback in court jurisdiction," says Jim Liebman, a Columbia University law professor who works on desegregation cases.
Yet some cases could work the other way, he adds. A court might want to release a district because its student assignments are racially balanced, even though its faculty assignments are not. Following Tuesday's decision, the court could end supervision of student assignments but continue to oversee faculty assignments.
The principles that supported the court decision are, first, a strong deference to the discretion of the district courts that directly oversee school districts. This decision strengthens the hand of district court judges to determine when and how schools are in compliance.
Second, this decision pushed further the emphasis by the judges on ending acts of discrimination, as opposed to curing the effects of past discrimination. The court is concerned with good and bad actors, the right and wrong of discrimination, more than whether the results of discrimination have been cured.
During most of the past three decades, courts have treated patterns of racial exclusion and segregation much as if they were intentional. This court is returning to an older distinction between deliberate discrimination and the fact of racial imbalance.
"It's almost like what took place in the early '60s," says August Steinhilber, general counsel for the National Association of School Boards. "This court seems to be going back to that."
The court's ruling in the Atlanta case, Freeman v. Pitts - which was held by all eight voting justices - is widely deemed a moderate one. (The ninth justice, Clarence Thomas, was not yet seated on the court when the case was heard in October.) Even the lawyer who argued the losing side, Christopher Hansen of the American Civil Liberties Union, says, "We can live with the legal rules [the decision sets out], if they're taken seriously."
The public schools of DeKalb County, Ga., which includes part of Atlanta and suburbs, were officially segregated until 1969.
The county came under court order that year to combine its racially separate schools into one integrated system. The district court found in the late 1980s that DeKalb had made a strong, good-faith effort. The court has continually been impressed by the successes of [the DeKalb school system] and its dedication to providing a quality education for all students within that system," the judge wrote.
The students were briefly integrated to court standards. But something else happened in DeKalb since 1969. Blacks moved in and whites moved out. A district that was only 5.6 percent black became 47 percent black by 1986. One result is that now half the black students attend schools that are 90 percent or more black.
But the majority of Supreme Court justices agreed that once the imbalance caused by old official discrimination was remedied, "the school system is under no duty to remedy imbalance that is caused by demographic factors."
"Racial balance is not to be achieved for its own sake," the majority opinion written by Justice Anthony Kennedy stated. "It is to be pursued when racial imbalance has been caused by a constitutional violation."
This decision builds on one last year that released an Oklahoma City school system from court control. Last year's decision established the importance of good-faith efforts by the schools as evidence that racial imbalances are not caused by official discrimination.
"Given some of the other things the court has done, this is a pretty moderate performance," says Mr. Liebman. Justice Antonin Scalia alone, he says, is "willing to undo all the desegregation law since the '60s."
Schools will still not find it easy to escape the stigma of court control, according to attorneys. The burden of proof is still with the schools to show they are desegregated.