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Photo of white students protesting school integration.
The decision Cooper v. Aaron, in which the Court asserted that the states are bound to its rulings, was issued in the midst of popular resistance in many southern states to the Court's earlier ruling in Brown v. Board of Education. Above, white students protest school integration.

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Cooper v. Aaron (1958)

In Cooper v. Aaron (1958), the Supreme Court ruled that the state of Arkansas could not pass legislation undermining the Court's ruling in Brown v. Board of Education (1954) that racial segregation in public schools is unconstitutional. In establishing that the states were bound by its rulings, the Supreme Court affirmed that its interpretation of the Constitution was the "supreme law of the land."

In 1954, the Supreme Court, in the landmark decision Brown v. Board of Education, declared that the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution forbade the states from segregating students in their public schools on account of race. In a 1955 follow-up decision (Brown v. Board of Education II), the Court directed all federal district courts to monitor the states' compliance with the Brown decision. The states were ordered to integrate their schools "with all deliberate speed." Soon thereafter, the school board of Little Rock, Arkansas, developed a court-approved plan to integrate its segregated school system. However, around the same time, the Arkansas governor and legislature passed new state laws and constitutional amendments outlawing integration in the state.

The Little Rock school board and the state clashed on September 4, 1957, when the Arkansas National Guard, under the direction of Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus, prevented a group of nine African American students ("The Little Rock Nine") from enrolling at Little Rock's Central High School pursuant to the school board's integration plan. Under threat of violence, a local federal court nevertheless ordered the school board to carry out the plan. The next day, again meeting resistance from the Arkansas National Guard, the U.S. government obtained an injunction (legal order to stop) against Governor Faubus in the local federal court, forcing Faubus to withdraw the state national guard. President Dwight Eisenhower then sent in federal national guard troops to protect the nine students from mobs. By the end of September, the students were finally able to enter the school and began attending classes there.

The drama had not ended, however. In February 1958, the Little Rock school board petitioned the local federal court to approve postponing their integration plan. The board cited "chaos, bedlam and turmoil" that had engulfed Central High School since the African American students enrolled. The court agreed, ordering that the students be removed from the school and that plans for integration be delayed another two and a half years. Acting on behalf of the Little Rock Nine, the NAACP appealed the decision to the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals, which reversed the lower court's decision and held that the delay would violate the constitutional rights of the Africa American students. Finally, the U.S. Supreme Court reviewed the case.

The Supreme Court unanimously held that the constitutional rights of the African American students could not be sacrificed for the sake of "order and peace" in public high schools. The African American students could thus remain at Central High School and the school board's original integration plan must go forward. The Court did not stop there, however, and insisted that the governor and legislature of Arkansas were bound by its orders. First, the state government is bound to the terms of the U.S. Constitution under the Supremacy and Oath Clauses (see Article VI). Second, because the Supreme Court is the "voice" of the U.S. Constitution (see Marbury v. Madison [1803]), the state government is bound to the Supreme Court's decisions and may not annul them with legislation, amendments, or orders.

If Brown v. Board of Education provided the foundation for school integration in the 1950s and 1960s, Cooper v. Aaron provided the muscle. Though Cooper simply reiterated constitutional principles that were already accepted, the decision affirmed the power of the federal courts to enforce federal civil rights laws and court decisions against the states, and the primacy of the Supreme Court in defining what the Constitution requires. As the Court declared, the states' compliance with the principles of civil rights, as articulated by the federal courts, is "indispensable for the protection of the freedoms guaranteed by our fundamental charter for all of us. Our constitutional ideal of equal justice under law is thus made a living truth."

Alex McBride is a third year law student at Tulane Law School in New Orleans. He is articles editor on the TULANE LAW REVIEW and the 2005 recipient of the Ray Forrester Award in Constitutional Law. In 2007, Alex will be clerking with Judge Susan Braden on the United States Court of Federal Claims in Washington.

Marbury v. Madison 1803 Martin v. Hunter's Lessee 1813 Boernes v. Flores 1957 Cooper v. Aaron 1958 view all landmark cases