Resolving the Original Sin of Bolling v. Sharpe

50 Pages Posted: 1 May 2012 Last revised: 20 May 2015

See all articles by Gregory Dolin

Gregory Dolin

University of Baltimore - School of Law

Date Written: April 30, 2012


On May 17, 1954 the Supreme Court handed down two decisions that for the first time categorically held that racial segregation in public schools was per se unlawful – Brown v. Board of Education and Bolling v. Sharpe. Ostensibly, both cases dealt with a same question; however, in Brown the entity accused of discrimination was a creature of the State of Kansas, while in Bolling the discrimination was practiced by the federal government. The problem that the Supreme Court faced was the language of the Fourteenth Amendment, which, by its own terms, guaranteed “equal protection of the laws” only vis-à-vis states and not the federal government. The Supreme Court recognized as much in Bolling, but ruled segregation illegal in the District of Columbia anyway.

Bolling is now universally recognized as reaching an unquestionably correct result as a policy and moral matter. This recognition makes it all the harder for the adherents of originalism to defend their preferred approach to constitutional interpretation. Originalists are forced to concede that the Constitution, interpreted as originally understood, did not impose equal protection restraints on the federal government, and therefore, Bolling, in imposing these norms where they were not meant to be, was wrongly decided. Recognizing the political (and moral) problem with this approach, originalists have simply attempted to waive the problem away. The problem is that at least in the popular perception “[a] theory of constitutional interpretation that cannot account for Brown [and Bolling] is suspect if not discredited.”

Some scholars, Robert Bork and Randy Barnett amongst them, have argued that although Bolling is indefensible as an originalist matter, this is not a real problem. According to them, even if Bolling were overruled no major problems would arise, if for no other reason than the federal government is politically constrained from running segregated schools or otherwise discriminating on the basis of race. This proposition is both dubious as a factual matter (or at the very least was so when Bolling was decided), and is unsatisfactory as a political matter. The general public is simply unlikely to buy into a judicial theory that would permit the federal government to discriminate at will on the basis of race. Accordingly, if originalism is to be broadly accepted by the public without being undermined by the discussion of Bolling and Brown, one needs to come up with a plausible explanation of how the results (if not the rationale) in those two cases can be supported under an originalist approach to constitutional interpretation.

In this Article I argue that Bolling is justifiable as an originalist matter if one properly interprets the Citizenship Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Properly understood, the clause was meant to protect not just a right to a passport or nationality, but a much broader right of equal participation in the civic life of the Nation. The term “citizen” was understood by the framers and ratifiers of the Fourteenth Amendment to encompass a wide scope of political rights, including a right to equality before the law. When viewed from that perspective, it becomes apparent that Bolling was correctly decided not only from the political perspective, but from legal originalist one as well.

Keywords: Originalism, Constitution, Fourteenth Amendment, Citizenship Clause, Segregation, Discrimination, Bolling v. Sharpe, Brown v. Board

Suggested Citation

Dolin, Gregory, Resolving the Original Sin of Bolling v. Sharpe (April 30, 2012). Seton Hall Law Review, Vol. 44, No. 3, p. 749, 2014, University of Baltimore School of Law Legal Studies Research Paper No. 2015-01, Available at SSRN: or

Gregory Dolin (Contact Author)

University of Baltimore - School of Law ( email )

1420 N. Charles Street
Baltimore, MD 21218
United States

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