United States v. Texas

By: Frank R. Kemerer

Type: General Entry

Published: February 1, 1996

Updated: March 24, 2021

In November 1970, William Wayne Justice, chief judge of the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Texas, ordered the Texas Education Agency to assume responsibility for desegregating Texas public schools. The decision in United States v. Texas, frequently named by its docket number, Civil Order 5281, applied to the entire Texas public school system and is one of the most extensive desegregation orders in legal history. The decision was the first of a string of highly controversial reform rulings Judge Justice handed down in the 1970s and 1980s that dramatically changed Texas public institutions, including state reform schools, facilities for the intellectually disabled, and state prisons. Justice, a liberal Democrat from Athens, Texas, was appointed to the federal bench in 1968 by President Lyndon B. Johnson. United States v. Texas originated with investigations in the late 1960s by the United States Department of Health, Education, and Welfare into alleged discriminatory practices in a number of small Texas public school districts, most in East Texas. Lacking effective enforcement power, HEW referred the matter to the Department of Justice, which was then at the height of its efforts to desegregate the nation's schools. The Justice Department sought to place the state as a whole under federal court order by naming both TEA and the state itself as parties to the lawsuit. Justice Department officials believed that Judge Justice would be highly supportive of their case and filed the lawsuit in his court in Marshall, Texas. Although the trial generated almost no press coverage, Justice's decision detailing how integration was to occur quickly captured the attention of both public school officials and top state policymakers. Denunciations began pouring into the court and continued thereafter for many years.

Justice first ordered the consolidation of the all-Black school districts originally involved in the litigation with adjoining White districts. He then ordered TEA to prohibit all public school districts in the state from assigning students to schools on the basis of race, from discriminating in extracurricular activities and personnel practices, and from operating segregated bus routes. TEA was to conduct annual reviews of school districts with one or more campuses having a 66 percent or greater minority enrollment to determine compliance with federal desegregation law. If violations were found, TEA was to impose sanctions, including denial of accreditation. A year after Justice handed down his decision, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit affirmed it, but removed from his jurisdiction schools districts that were then or would later be under desegregation orders issued by other federal courts in Texas. Even with this modification, the order applied to more than 1,000 school districts and two million students. In 1982 a panel of judges on the Fifth Circuit rebuffed Justice's effort to extend United States v. Texas to alleged discrimination against Mexican Americans in the Gregory-Portland Independent School District. Noting the absence of any statewide policy of discrimination against Hispanics and expressing strong belief in neighborhood schools, the appeals judges downplayed most of the evidence Justice had relied on in ordering busing to integrate schools in the district. After that decision and a second in 1986 restricting use of Civil Order 5281 to challenge a state competency test for admission to college teaching programs, only sporadic efforts were made to enforce the order in Justice's court. By the early 1990s it seemed only a matter of time before the state would succeed in bringing about an end to United States v. Texas. Research conducted by the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin shows that United States v. Texas had some limited success in forcing school districts across the state to readjust their campus student assignments to promote integration. In addition, segregation in transportation, school-district boundary changes, transfer of school property, and extracurricular activities was halted or significantly reduced, though problems remained. See also CIVIL-RIGHTS MOVEMENT.

Frank R. Kemerer, William Wayne Justice: A Judicial Biography (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1991). Richard L. Schott, School Desegregation in Texas: The Implementation of United States v. Texas (Policy Research Report 51, Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs, University of Texas at Austin, 1982).

  • Education
  • Court Cases
  • Law, Law Enforcement, and Outlaws
  • Politics and Government
  • Court Cases and Controversies
  • Peoples
  • African Americans
  • Activism and Social Reform
  • Civil Rights, Segregation, and Slavery
  • Mexican Americans

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Frank R. Kemerer, “United States v. Texas,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed June 28, 2022, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/united-states-v-texas.

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

February 1, 1996
March 24, 2021

This entry belongs to the following Handbook Special Projects: