While the nation’s highest court ruled 53 years ago that separate schools are inherently unequal, a former clerk for the decision’s author said the case has done little to achieve real equality in public schools.
Peter D. Ehrenhaft, who clerked for Chief Justice earl Warren from 1961-62, said that while Warren’s legacy is largely shaped by his 1954 opinion in Brown v. Board of Education, the decision’s impact on public schools was all but eviscerated by a decision decided in 1962, when Ehrenhaft was a clerk: Baker v. Carr.
In that case, the Court held that reapportionment of voting districts was a judiciable issue, and it led to redistricting of state legislative districts that ultimately shifted voting power to the suburbs.
“The result of Baker v. Carr has been that suburbanites control the legislatures in most states,” and as such, suburban schools receive more attention and funding from state legislatures, Ehrenhaft said during a lecture hosted by the Columbia University Club of D.C. Thursday night at the Charles Sumner School.
While the legacy of Brown has had the effect of cutting discrimination in other areas, in education, poorer school districts – which tend to have higher minority populations – still lag behind their wealthier suburban counterparts. “For the target – public primary education – [Brown] has not had a significant impact. In fact, it has had the opposite effect of encouraging suburban flight.”
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Ehrenhaft also said clerks today don’t share the same deep camaraderie with one another – or with the justices – he enjoyed during he tenure. “One of the really sad developments of the clerks is that when I was there, it wasn’t uncommon for [Justice] Warren to come and sit next to any one of [the clerks] and schmooze,” he said. “Not now. They are like nine separate law firms.”
The difference, he said, is the press. The appetite among news reporters for inside information from the Court’s halls has caused a healthy level of distrust, he said. “Collegiality is an important part of the experience, but it [can’t exist] where there is apprehension that whatever you say will be written down and put in the paper.”