A Judge Shapes and Manages Institutional Reform: School Desegregation in Buffalo


In April of 1976, Judge John Curtin of the Western District of New York held that the city of Buffalo had created and maintained segregated schools in violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution, and ordered the desegregation of the school system. He urged the community to look upon the task of desegregation not as a difficult chore, but rather as an opportunity to create better schools and a better community in Buffalo. Quoting the words Tennyson had Ulysses use when exhorting his friends and followers, Judge Curtin said: “Come my friends, ’tis not too late to seek a new world.” Almost ten years later, the New York Times noted that Buffalo is considered a “national model of integration.” There has been no white flight, and scores on standardized achievement tests are up. Educators come from around the world to see how the Buffalo school system works. This is an astonishing phenomenon in a city which had been called “the most segregated city in the Northeast,” and which had supported school board tactics designed to further segregation within the school system for decades.

In the period between the Supreme Court’s 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education and Judge Curtin’s decision in 1976, many district courts tried to follow the Court’s mandate to desegregate, with varying degrees of success. In Boston, for example, the district court’s order to desegregate led to years of intransigence and violence around the desegregation issue, while in Denver, desegregation was largely peaceful. This Article will look at the efforts of the district court judge in Buffalo to see specifically how he managed the institutional reform of the schools so as to maximize the likelihood of peaceful desegregation and productive integration. This Article will focus on the judge’s role in shaping and managing desegregation as a way of under standing and assessing this process of social reform in Buffalo. It will also look at the question of whether or not the judge has been successful at this task. In particular, this Article will look at the various definitions of “success” used by major actors in this process, and will analyze the relative “success” of desegregation in Buffalo. Finally, this Article will present Judge Curtin’s role as an example of a new role for the judiciary in institutional reform cases, a role which raises questions as to the court’s competence and its integrity. It will show how Judge Curtin addressed these problems in the process of managing the reform of the school system. This Article will also discuss the relationship of his model of judicial action with the role of courts in a democracy.

The first section, the history of Arthur v. Nyquist from the filing date in 1972 until 1988, provides a context, a set of facts which gives us the basic material for the subsequent analyses of the desegregation process. The second section looks at the role which Judge Curtin played over the years as he shaped and managed the reform of the Buffalo Public School system in order to bring it into line with the values of the Constitution. Three specific areas where his role was crucial to the success of desegregation will be considered: (1) the planning phase, where he re-focused the energy of the community toward building a better school system and insisted on total community involvement in that process; (2) setting the pace for desegregation in a way which would maximize the outcome he sought; and (3) the personal role he has played in actively monitoring the process so as to have sufficient information to channel the restructuring process properly. The third section looks at the role played by major institutional actors in Buffalo – the school board and the religious community – in the desegregation process. This section suggests that without the unwavering and interlocking support of these actors for the judge’s orders, it is unlikely that desegregation would have been as peaceful as it was.

Section four turns to the question of whether the result of the judge’s long intervention in restructuring the school system has been, as the New York Times puts it, a “national model of integration.”9 Has the integration of the school system really been successful? What does “successful” mean in this context? Does it mean that black school children are receiving a better education? Does it mean that there is an improvement in interracial harmony? Or, does it merely mean that black and white children are in the same school buildings? This section will show how representatives of plaintiffs, the school superintendent and Judge Curtin define “success,” and how they view desegregation in Buffalo in light of that definition.

In section five, this Article addresses jurisprudential concerns which are illuminated by an understanding of Judge Curtin’s role in the Buffalo school desegregation case. First, it looks at the framework of institutional reform cases such as this one, and notes criticisms which suggest that the courts have institutional constraints that make them less suited for this kind of work than legislative or administrative bodies. It will then show how Judge Curtin addressed those institutional limits in this case in order to act effectively. Judge Curtin’s primary technique for meeting the inadequacies in the court system involved reaching out to the community, bringing the community into the decision-making process. This section will also address the question of whether the technique Judge Curtin created is an example of John Ely’s “participation- oriented, representation-reinforcing” approach to judicial review, an approach which, in Ely’s view, harmonizes the goals of popular control and egalitarianism in the judicial process.

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