Nullification Attempts and School Desegregation in The 1950s
Nullification and interposition resurfaced in the 1950s as southern states attempted to preserve racial segregation in their schools. In Brown v. Board of Education, 347 U.S. 483 (1954), the Supreme Court decided that segregated schools were unconstitutional. At least ten southern states passed nullification or interposition measures attempting to preserve segregated schools and refusing to follow the Brown decision. The advocates of these nullification and interposition measures argued that the Brown decision was an unconstitutional infringement on states' rights, and that the states had the power to prevent that decision from being enforced within their borders.
The Supreme Court explicitly rejected nullification in the case of Cooper v. Aaron, 358 U.S. 1 (1958). The state of Arkansas had passed several laws in an effort to prevent the integration of its schools. The Supreme Court, in its only opinion to be signed by all nine justices, held that state governments had no power to nullify the Brown decision. The Supreme Court held that the Brown decision and its implementation "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 whether attempted 'ingeniously or ingenuously.'" Thus, Cooper v. Aaron directly held that states may not nullify federal law.
The Supreme Court rejected interposition in a similar context. The Supreme Court affirmed the decision of a federal district court that rejected Louisiana's attempt to use interposition to protect its segregated schools. The district court found that interposition by the states is inconsistent with the Constitution, which gives the power to decide constitutional issues to the Supreme Court, not the states. The court held: "The conclusion is clear that interposition is not a constitutional doctrine. If taken seriously, it is illegal defiance of constitutional authority. Otherwise, 'it amounted to no more than a protest, an escape valve through which the legislators blew off steam to relieve their tensions.' . . . However solemn or spirited, interposition resolutions have no legal efficacy." Bush v. Orleans Parish School Board, 188 F. Supp. 916 (E.D. La. 1960), aff'd 364 U.S. 500 (1960). The Supreme Court affirmed this decision, thus holding that interposition cannot be used to negate federal law.
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