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The Little Rock School Desegregation Cases in Richard Arnold's Court

53 Pages Posted: 16 Aug 2005  

Polly J. Price

Emory University School of Law


For twenty-two years Judge Richard S. Arnold was a central figure in the Little Rock school desegregation cases. For the reasons elaborated in this article, it is probably not an exaggeration to refer to the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals in these cases as the Arnold court. The most critical and controversial decisions concerning desegregation in Little Rock by the Eighth Circuit bear Arnold's signature, or at least reflect his significant influence. Arnold's last opinion in the Little Rock school cases, written a few months before his death in September 2004, signaled the close of nearly fifty years of federal court involvement. The particular resolution of the Little Rock school cases is largely attributable to the influence of this one judge, however one may assess the success or failure of the litigation to desegregate the Little Rock public schools.

Arnold sat on twenty-eight appeals of school desegregation issues, and would write sixteen opinions in these cases, all but one (a concurrence and dissent in an en banc opinion) for the panel majority. These opinions were never simply a rubber stamp for district court actions. Although Arnold has been described as a powerful liberal-leaning intellectual, it is not easy to characterize Arnold as either a liberal or a conservative in the Little Rock desegregation cases. Arnold refused to order consolidation in a case that, to some at least, seemed appropriate under U.S. Supreme Court precedent at the time. Instead, he preferred a political solution in a state that had demonstrated political resistance in the past.

Arnold's opinions in the Little Rock school cases generated both praise and criticism, but they exhibit a unifying theme. Arnold adopted a particular view of public law litigation and the role of parties in working out remedies for constitutional violations in institutional reform cases. He was familiar with academic writing on the subject, in particular the work of Abram Chayes and Owen Fiss. Both wrote about what was then the relatively new phenomena of institutional reform class actions, pointing out that this public law litigation bore little resemblance to the traditional dispute-resolution model of judicial decision-making. Richard Arnold's synthesis was driven largely by pragmatism. What emerges is Arnold's strong preference for settlement by the parties rather than court-imposed constitutional criteria. This article suggests how Arnold's motivations related to both his particular view of the limitations of public law litigation and his own personal history.

Suggested Citation

Price, Polly J., The Little Rock School Desegregation Cases in Richard Arnold's Court. Arkansas Law Review, Forthcoming; Emory Public Law Research Paper No. 05-27. Available at SSRN:

Polly J. Price (Contact Author)

Emory University School of Law ( email )

1301 Clifton Road
Atlanta, GA 30322
United States
404-727-7869 (Phone)

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