OLR Research Report

The Connecticut General Assembly


July 11, 1996 96-R-0992


FROM: D=Ann Mazzocca, Principal Analyst

RE: Sheff v. O=Neill Decision

You asked for a summary of the state Supreme Court=s Sheff v. O=Neill majority decision.


Chief Justice Ellen Peters, writing for the majority, outlined the plaintiffs= argument that the state has a constitutional obligation to remedy the educational inequities in the Hartford schools that are caused by racial and ethnic isolation. The trial court had rejected that argument and found for the defendants on the ground that, because state action was not shown to be the direct and sufficient cause of the inequities, the state is not responsible for a remedy.

On appeal, the state reiterated its claims that (1) the court does not have proper jurisdiction in this case because the constitutional provision in question specifies that the legislature must implement the requirement that children be guaranteed a free public education and (2) in any case, the disparities in question were not intentionally caused by the state and therefore the state is not responsible for a remedy.

The Supreme Court held that the court has jurisdiction and, because the state knew about the substantially unequal educational opportunities afforded Hartford school children and failed to remedy them, its omissions constitute state action and make it responsible. It further held that even though the statutory requirements for students to attend school in the town where they live were enacted for a legitimate state interest, they are most responsible for the racial and ethnic segregation of the Hartford schools that deprives the students of their constitutionally guaranteed equal educational opportunity and are thus unconstitutional Αas enforced with regard to these plaintiffs.

The court reversed the judgment of the trial court, remanded the case with direction to render a declaratory judgment in favor of the plaintiffs, directed the state to come up with remedial measures, and directed the Superior Court to retain jurisdiction in accordance with this opinion.


Initial Complaint, Decision, and Appeal

The plaintiffs, students from Hartford and neighboring towns, alleged that state officials, including the governor and the State Board of Education, have a constitutional obligation to remedy educational inequities in the Hartford schools caused by racial and ethnic isolation. The state denied the plaintiffs= factual and legal claims and raised several defenses, one of which the trial court accepted when it ruled in their favor. Because the plaintiffs did not prove that the unequal conditions in the Hartford schools were caused by state action, Judge Harry Hammer ruled in favor of the state, without explicitly addressing the merits of the plaintiffs= constitutional claims. The plaintiffs appealed to the Appellate Court, but the Supreme Court transferred the appeal to itself and ordered the parties to prepare a joint stipulation of undisputed facts and help the trial court make findings of fact where there was disagreement.

Stipulated Facts and Findings of Fact

Those facts establish that Hartford enrolls the highest percentage of minority students in the state; a majority of its students come from poor homes with a single parent where a foreign language is spoken; the mobility of its students from school to school is the highest in the state; and their educational achievement is the state=s lowest. The state controls education, even though it delegates responsibility to school districts; state statutes establish towns as school districts and assign students to the districts where they live; the state provides substantial financial support for education; it has not intentionally segregated racial and ethnic minorities in Hartford; and it has supported and encouraged voluntary plans for increasing diversity between and among school districts. The state=s role in the concentration of racial and ethnic minorities in Hartford lies principally in the districting statute, Section 10-240 of the General Statutes, which makes each town a school district and is Αthe single most important factor contributing to the concentration.

The trial court found that: (1) poverty, not race or ethnicity, is the main cause of the low educational achievement of Hartford school children; (2) the students are provided with a minimally adequate education under the constitution because they receive similar resources, educational programs, and curricula as students in other communities; (3) school district lines would have to be redrawn to remedy the racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic isolation in Hartford schools; and (4) mandatory intervention based on coercion would not ensure educationally desirable results.


The state made two principal arguments in the appeal: (1) that the plaintiffs claim for relief is not a proper subject for jurisdiction by the court and (2) that the educational disparities are not caused by intentional state action. The Court rejected both arguments.


Article Eighth, Section 1 of the state Constitution requires that Αthere shall always be free public elementary and secondary schools in the state. The General Assembly shall implement this principle by appropriate legislation. While acknowledging that the separation of powers doctrine means that courts do not have jurisdiction when the text of a constitutional provision explicitly reserves matters for the legislature, the Supreme Court cites precedents that affirm the courts= responsibility to decide (1) whether a matter has been reserved to another branch of government and (2) whether the legislature has fulfilled its responsibility in accordance with constitutional principles. It cites as major precedents the Horton v. Meskill cases (172 Conn. 615 and 195 Conn. 24) which dealt with the legislature=s actions in fulfilling its constitutional obligations to school children. Based on these precedents, the court concludes that it has the power to decide this case.

Intentional State Action

The plaintiffs argued that the state is responsible for correcting the alleged constitutional violations because it knew about the Hartford schools= racial and ethnic isolation, is integrally involved with the operation of the public schools, and passed laws requiring school attendance within statutorily defined districts contiguous with town boundaries (GCS 10-184 and 10-240). The state responded, and the trial court had agreed, that only intentional state misconduct triggers the state=s responsibility.

The Supreme Court disagreed with the trial court on this point, citing its own Horton decision that (1) the constitutional provisions requiring the legislature to implement free public schools and prohibiting segregation or discrimination because of race or ethnicity impose an affirmative duty to provide school children with a substantially equal educational opportunity and (2) if it fails to do so, its omissions Αconstitute state action. The Horton decision found the state=s educational financing system unconstitutional and required remedial action, even though that system was not discriminatory on its face and the discrepancies that it caused were not intentional.

For two reasons, the court also explicitly rejected the state=s appeal to the federal precedents that largely underpinned the trial court ruling and that require those seeking relief for educational disparities under the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution to prove intentional governmental discrimination. First, the state, unlike the federal, constitution grants a fundamental right to education and imposes a state obligation to implement and maintain that right. Second, the principal of federalism, which is a prime limiting consideration in interpreting the federal constitution, does not similarly restrict state authority. The court also cited precedents to show that the U.S. Supreme Court sometimes holds that legislative failure to act to carry out a constitutional duty, such as to protect the right to vote, is sufficient to require constitutional remedies, and it holds that there is no substantial difference between protecting the right to vote and protecting the right to a substantially equal educational opportunity.


In addition to the constitutional right to a free public education embodied in Article Eighth, Section 1, Article First, Section 20 provides that Αno person shall be denied the equal protection of the law nor be subjected to segregation or discrimination in the exercise or enjoyment of his civil or political rights because of religion, race, color, ancestory or national origin. In deciding whether the plaintiffs had made a case for relief under these two provisions, the Supreme Court conducted a three-part analysis:

1. What are the elements of the constitutional mandate to provide a substantially equal educational opportunity in the context of racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic disparities?

2. Does the plaintiffs= complaint include these elements?

3. Have the plaintiffs proven their claim?

Elements of Mandate

The court affirms that the constitutional rights to a free public education and to protection from segregation amount to a commitment to substantially equal educational opportunities. It cites the explicit intent of the 1965 constitutional convention that adopted these provisions to prohibit not just discrimination (that is, intentional conduct) but segregation (which the court interpreted to mean separation). The state agreed with the plaintiffs that segregation is harmful and that the racial and ethnic isolation of Hartford is likely to worsen. Because of the affirmative obligation to equalize educational opportunities and the state=s awareness of Hartford=s increasing racial isolation, the court ruled the state has the responsibility to take affirmative action to remedy the situation, Αregardless of whether that segregation has occurred de jure or de facto, that is whether it is intentional or not. The court thus concludes that the state constitution permits a constitutional challenge to the substantial disparities in educational opportunities caused by segregated schools.

Plaintiffs= Complaint

The court finds that the first two counts of the plaintiffs= complaint constitute a claim for the deprivation of substantially equal educational opportunities on the ground of racial segregation.

Plaintiffs= Proof

In order to decide whether the plaintiffs have proven their claim that their fundamental right to a substantially equal educational opportunity free from substantial racial and ethnic isolation has been impaired, the court used the three-part test it set out in Horton III (195 Conn. 35) to scrutinize legislation that infringes on the fundamental right to education.

1. It found that the plaintiffs had demonstrated that the disparities cited were more than minimal, and the state did not contest this.

2. It found that the disparities are incidental to state statutes that were enacted to advance a legitimate state policy. The districting law was enacted to increase state involvement in education and to permit local control and accountability in implementing its policies. It also found that statutes enacted to remedy racial imbalance within districts, the state=s support for voluntary plans to increase interdistrict diversity, and state financial support for magnet schools are additional evidence for the legitimacy of state actions.

3. The state had to show that the continuing disparities are not so great as to be unconstitutional. The Court found that despite the state=s nondiscriminatory intent and its initiatives to alleviate the disparities, they remain significant enough to infringe upon the plaintiffs= constitutional right to a substantially equal educational opportunity.

The court thus concludes that the statutory school districting system based on town boundaries as enforced with respect to the plaintiffs is unconstitutional, reverses the judgment of the trial court, and directs that judgment be rendered for the plaintiffs.


The court rejected its options to remand the case to the trial court for further proceedings to address specific remedies or to invite further evidence and impose a remedy itself. Instead, following the precedent in Horton I, it limited itself to declaring the laws unconstitutional, gave the General Assembly the opportunity to take legislative action to remedy the situation, and retained jurisdiction for the Superior Court to order other steps if needed in the future. The court also points out the urgency of the situation and directs the legislative and executive branches to put the search for a remedy at the top of their agendas but otherwise imposes no time limits for action.