Milliken v. Bradley

418 U.S. 717 (1974)

Quick Summary

Bradley (plaintiff) challenged Michigan’s Governor Milliken (defendant) over segregation in Detroit’s public schools. The dispute centered around whether federal courts could mandate desegregation plans that included surrounding districts without proof of their violation of constitutional rights.

After lower courts approved an extended metropolitan remedy, the Supreme Court concluded that such measures were excessive, as they were not tailored to the specific violation within Detroit and lacked evidence of wrongdoing by surrounding districts.

Facts of the Case

In the aftermath of the landmark Brown v. Board of Education ruling, which declared racial segregation in public schools unconstitutional, a lawsuit was initiated by Bradley (plaintiff) against Milliken (defendant), the Governor of Michigan, concerning segregation in Detroit’s public schools.

The plaintiffs accused the Detroit school system and state officials of maintaining racially segregated schools through their policies and actions. The district court initially found no proof of a dual segregated system but, on appeal, determined that state action had thwarted voluntary desegregation efforts.

Following a comprehensive trial, the district court concluded that multiple factors, including state legislation and local school board actions, contributed to maintaining segregated schools in Detroit.

The court ordered desegregation plans for Detroit but also called for state officials to present plans that would include surrounding suburban districts, even though these districts were not proven to have committed constitutional violations or been part of the initial lawsuit.

Procedural Posture and History

  1. The district court initially denied a preliminary injunction for the implementation of a voluntary desegregation plan, not finding proof of a segregated system.
  2. The Court of Appeals found unconstitutional state interference with voluntary desegregation efforts and remanded the case for trial on the merits.
  3. After an extensive trial, the district court identified constitutional violations by both the Detroit school system and state officials and called for desegregation plans.
  4. The district court’s plan extended beyond Detroit to include suburban districts without finding that these districts had committed constitutional violations.
  5. The Court of Appeals affirmed in part and remanded for further proceedings on the metropolitan area remedy.

I.R.A.C. Format


Whether a federal court can impose a multidistrict, areawide remedy to address segregation in a single school district without evidence of constitutional violations in surrounding districts.

Rule of Law

The scope of a federal court’s remedial power is limited to addressing the specific constitutional violation identified. The nature of the violation determines the extent of the remedy. See Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education, 402 U.S. 1 (1971).

Reasoning and Analysis

The Supreme Court examined whether the measures taken by lower courts were appropriate to remedy the segregation within Detroit’s schools. The primary legal principle was that remedies should be tailored to correct the specific constitutional violation, and extend no further than necessary.

The Supreme Court scrutinized the shift from focusing on Detroit to a metropolitan remedy, which was based on achieving racial balance rather than eliminating unlawful segregation. The Court emphasized that while racial balance is an admirable goal, it is not mandated by the Constitution nor by precedent.

There must be a direct connection between the constitutional violation and the scope of the ordered remedy. In this case, extending the remedy to include suburban districts without demonstrated violations extended beyond what was necessary to address the segregation found within Detroit.


The Supreme Court reversed the decision of the lower courts, holding that an interdistrict remedy was not justified based on the evidence presented and was beyond the scope of appropriate judicial authority for addressing the segregation within Detroit’s schools.

Key Takeaways

  1. The scope of judicial remedies must be confined to addressing the specific constitutional violation identified.
  2. Racial balance is not a constitutional requirement and does not justify extending remedies beyond necessary boundaries.
  3. Imposing a remedy on areas without proven constitutional violations exceeds judicial authority and is inappropriate.

Relevant FAQs of this case

What limits the extent of a court's authority to impose remedies for a constitutional violation?

The extent of a court’s authority to impose remedies is limited by the specific constitutional violation that has been identified. Remedies must be directly targeted to correcting the harm caused by the violation and not extend beyond what is necessary to rectify the issue at hand.

  • For example: If a court finds that a local ordinance discriminates based on race, the remedy should aim to eliminate the discriminatory effect of that ordinance rather than overhauling the entire municipal code, which may include provisions unrelated to the constitutional issue.

Is racial balance a constitutional requirement in school desegregation cases?

Racial balance is not a constitutional requirement in school desegregation cases. The Constitution mandates the elimination of intentional segregation, not achieving a particular racial balance in public schools.

  • For example: A court may order redrawing of school districting lines to dismantle segregation but is not obliged to ensure each school’s student body mirrors the racial demographics of the broader community.

Can a remedy for segregation include parties or entities that were not found to have violated constitutional rights?

A remedy for segregation should not extend to include parties or entities that were not proven to have committed a violation of constitutional rights. Remedies must be confined to those who are responsible for or have contributed to the unconstitutional condition.

  • For example: If a city’s housing policy creates segregated neighborhoods thus affecting local schools, a remedy may target housing practices but cannot impose obligations on neighboring cities that did not engage in discriminatory practices.


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