Cooper v. Aaron

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Cooper v. Aaron
Seal of the United States Supreme Court.svg
Argued September 11, 1958
Decided September 12, 1958
Full case name William G. Cooper, et al., Members of the Board of Directors of the Little Rock, Arkansas, Independent School District, and Virgial T. Blossom, Superintendent of Schools v. John Aaron, et al.
Citations 358 U.S. 1 (more)
78 S. Ct. 1401; 3 L. Ed. 2d 5; 1958 U.S. LEXIS 657; 79 Ohio L. Abs. 452
Prior history Suspension of order granted, 163 F. Supp. 13 (E.D. Ark 1958); reversed, 257 F.2d 33 (8th Cir. 1958)
Subsequent history Opinion announced September 29, 1958
The states are bound by the Court's decisions, and cannot choose to ignore them. Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed.
Court membership
Case opinions
Majority Joint opinion by all nine Justices
Concurrence Frankfurter
Laws applied
U.S. Const. amend. XIV; Supremacy Clause

Cooper v. Aaron, 358 U.S. 1 (1958)[1], was a landmark decision of the Supreme Court of the United States, which held that the states are bound by the Court's decisions and must enforce them even if the states disagreed with them.

Background of the case

In the wake of Brown v. Board of Education, the school district of Little Rock, Arkansas formulated a plan to desegregate its schools. Meanwhile, other school districts in the state opposed the Supreme Court's rulings and attempted to find ways to perpetuate segregation. The Arkansas state legislature amended the state constitution to oppose desegregation and then passed a law relieving children from mandatory attendance at integrated schools. The school board of Little Rock still continued with the desegregation program.

On February 20, 1958, five months after the integration crisis involving the Little Rock Nine, members of the school board (along with the Superintendent of Schools) filed suit in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Arkansas, urging suspension of its plan of desegregation. They alleged that public hostility to desegregation and that the opposition of Governor Orval Faubus and the state legislature created an intolerable and chaotic situation. The relief the plaintiffs requested was for the African-American children to be returned to segregated schools and for the implementation of the desegregation plan to be postponed for two and a half years. The district court granted the school board's request, but the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit reversed. Prior to the Eighth Circuit's decision, the Supreme Court had denied the defendants' request to decide the case without waiting for the appeals court to deliberate on the case.

The court's decision

In an extraordinary joint opinion authored by all nine Justices, the Court noted that the school board had acted in good faith, that most of the problems stemmed from the official opposition of the Arkansas state government to racial integration in both word and deed. Nonetheless, it was constitutionally impermissible under the Equal Protection Clause to maintain law and order by depriving the black students of their equal rights under the law.

More importantly, the Court held that since the Supremacy Clause of Article VI made the US Constitution the supreme law of the land and Marbury v. Madison made the Supreme Court the final interpreter of the Constitution,[1] the precedent set forth in Brown v. Board of Education is the supreme law of the land and is therefore binding on all the states, regardless of any state laws contradicting it. The Court therefore rejected the contention that the Arkansas legislature and Governor were not bound by the Brown decision.

The Supreme Court rejected the doctrines of nullification and interposition, which had been invoked by segregationists. Segregation supporters argued that the states have the power to nullify federal laws or court rulings that they believe to be unconstitutional and the states could use this power to nullify the Brown decision. The Arkansas laws that attempted to prevent desegregation were Arkansas' effort to nullify the Brown decision. The Supreme Court held that the Brown decision "can neither be nullified openly and directly by state legislators or state executive or judicial officers nor nullified indirectly by them through evasive schemes for segregation." Thus, Cooper v. Aaron held that state attempts to nullify federal law are ineffective.

Moreover, since public officials are required to swear an oath to uphold the Constitution (as per Article VI, Clause 3), for these same officials to ignore the Court's precedents is equal to a violation of that oath. Even though education is the responsibility of the state government, that responsibility must be carried out in a manner consistent with the requirements of the Constitution, particularly the Fourteenth Amendment.

Critical response

Some legal scholars criticized the Court's rationale in Cooper. Perhaps the most famous criticism of the case was that of former US Attorney General Edwin Meese, in a law review article entitled The Law of the Constitution.[2] There, Meese accused the Court of taking too much power for itself by setting itself up as the sole institution responsible for the interpretation of the Constitution. He wrote that while judicial interpretation of the Constitution binds the parties of the case, it should not establish a supreme law of the land that must be accepted by all persons.

See also


  1. The Court claimed that Marbury

    "... declared the basic principle that the federal judiciary is supreme in the exposition of the law of the Constitution, and that principle has ever since been respected by the Court and the country as a permanent and indispensable feature of our constitutional system". 258 U.S. 1, 18

    Chief Justice John Marshall wrote in Marbury,

    "it is emphatically the province and duty of the judicial department to say what the law is. Those who apply the rule to particular cases must of necessity expound and interpret that rule." U.S. (1 Cranch) at 177

    For a different understanding of Marbury see Pryor, William. "The Unbearable Rightness of Marbury v. Madison: Its Real Lessons and Irrepressible Myths", Engage, Volume 12, Issue 2, p. 94 (2011).
  2. Meese, Edwin. "The Law of the Constitution", Tulane Law Review, Vol. 61, p. 979 (1986-1987).


  • Farber, Daniel A.; Eskridge, William N., Jr.; Frickey, Philip P. Constitutional Law: Themes for the Constitution's Third Century. Thomson-West Publishing, 2003. ISBN 0-314-14353-X
  • Hall, Kermit L. ed. The Oxford Companion to the Supreme Court of the United States, Second Edition. Oxford University Press, 2005. ISBN 978-0-19-517661-2
  • Freyer, Tony A. Little Rock on Trial: Cooper v. Aaron and School Desegregation. Lawrence (KS), 2007.

External links