Cooper v Aaron (1958)


In the landmark decision of Cooper v Aaron, the Supreme Court asserted that their rulings of the Constitution is binding on all government actors.The case followed the Brown v Board of Education decision where segregation of schools was deemed unconstitutional. While the Little Rock School Board planned to carry out the intended plan of desegregation, they were continuously challenged by the governor and state officials. Because of this continuous lack of support from the state and general public, the Little Rock School Board wanted to postpone the plan for two and a half years. Although it was approved by the District Courts, the respondents brought the case to the Court of Appeals in order to reverse the decision. This then led it to be brought to the Supreme Court. In the unanimous decision signed by each Supreme Court Justice, the Court ruled that the state and state officials must follow the Court’s interpretation of the Constitution because theirs is the “supreme law of the land”.

First Timeline


On May 17th 1954 the Supreme Court declared it’s historic, unanimous decision in the Brown v Board of Education case that had polarized the nation. By ruling of the Supreme Court, it was now deemed unconstitutional to have segregation in public schools as it violated African American’s 14th amendment rights to equal protection.  Although the Supreme Court did not offer any advice on how to go about the desegregation process, they did demand that it be done swiftly.

In Arkansas, the Little Rock School Board initially agreed to accept the Supreme Court’s decision and planned to start desegregating schools by the fall of 1957. Many different methods of desegregation were discussed but in the end, the Blossom Plan, proposed by superintendent Virgil Blossom, was to be set in motion. This plan called for the slow integration of one high school, Little Rock Central, followed by the opening of a few junior high schools to a small number of black students over the next few years. It also allowed for students to transfer to schools outside of their assigned school zone. This addition set up huge limits to the effects of the desegregation ruling by allowing white students to purposefully congregate in one school over the other. Although many members of the white community accepted the Blossom Plan, the Little Rock branch of the NAACP was not satisfied and tried multiple times to renegotiate. After failing to do so they filed a lawsuit on February 8th 1956 and enrolled nine students of excellent academic standing (later dubbed the Little Rock Nine) in Little Rock Central High School.

On September 4th 1957, as the Little Rock Nine were attempting to enter Little Rock Central High School for the first time as students, they were met by the forceful presence of the Arkansas National Guard as well as many segregationist protesters. Governor Orval Faubus had deployed the National Guard in order to aid the protestors in their efforts to physically restrict the black students from entering the school. President Dwight Eisenhower responded to this blatant denial of rights by not only deploying units of the 101st Airborne Division, but also by federalizing the Arkansas National Guard. The same soldiers who had come to aid the protestors were now forced to fight against them.

Five months after this, on February 20th 1958, the Little Rock school board filed a lawsuit in the Arkansas district court requesting an immediate end to the desegregation process. They argued that it was causing insufferable conditions in Little Rock and chaos amongst the people. The school board’s request was originally granted by the District Court of the Eastern District of Arkansas but later reversed by the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit, and ultimately ended up being argued in front of the United States Supreme Court.

Procedural History

The case was first brought to court when a group of African American plaintiffs believed that the School Board was not moving at “all deliberate speed” in order to desegregate the schools in Little Rock, Arkansas. The School Board’s plan was to begin desegregating the high school levels first and then the lower level schools second. This process was estimated to be completed by 1963, which the plaintiffs did not think was quick enough. However, the District Court ruled in favor of the School Board and requested them to proceed with their initial plan.

These plans continued to be thwarted because of the actions of the the governor and state officials. The day before the first day of desegregation at Central High School, the governor of Arkansas believed it was necessary to send out the National Guard to the school, in order to prevent any colored students from getting inside. These nine students were told that the high school was “off limits” to any colored students. The School Board and the District Court did not ask for, nor want, these actions from the governor. After the Governor’s harsh action against the black students, the School Board suggested that the students not attend the school until the “legal dilemma was resolved”. The School Board consulted with the District Courts, and the Court requested that the students go back to the school and continue the initial plan of desegregation.

The governor continued to deny the students access into Central High School for three weeks. On September 7, 1957, the District Court denied a petition by the School Board requesting an order for a temporary suspension of the program. After an investigation by the United States Attorney General and hearings, the District Court found out the the School Board’s plan had been obstructed by the Governor through the use of force. The District Court then filed a preliminary injunction on September 20, 1957,ordering the Governor and the National Guard to discontinue preventing the students from entering the school and interfering with the plan of desegregation.

On February 20, 1958, the School Board and the Superintendent of the Schools filed a petition to postpone the program of desegregation. Their reasoning for this was that the presence of the African American students, public hostility of the program, and the past actions of the governor had an effect on the educational program at Central High School. The School Board suggested that the African American students already in attendance would withdraw from the school and return to their segregated high schools and the program would be suspended for two and a half years. The District Court granted this request. The judgement was dated June 20, 1958.

The respondents appealed to the Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit and also sought a stay on the District Court decision. The Court of Appeals did not act on the petition for a stay, but, on August 18, 1958, after convening in special session on August 4 and hearing the appeal, reversed the District Court decision. On August 21, 1958, the Court of Appeals stayed its mandate to permit the School Board to petition this Court for certiorari. Pending the filing of the School Board’s petition for certiorari, the respondents, on August 23, 1958, applied to Mr. Justice Whittaker, as Circuit Justice for the Eighth Circuit, to stay the order of the Court of Appeals withholding its own mandate, and also to stay the District Court’s judgment. On September 12, 1958, the Supreme Court unanimously affirmed the judgment of the Court of Appeals in the per curiam opinion. The Supreme Court was unanimous in the decision that their interpretation of the US Constitution is the “law of the land” and should be followed the way that they interpret it.


Is the state and its officials required to follow the Supreme Court’s decisions and their interpretations of the Constitution?


In an unanimous decision by the Supreme Court, it was found that the efforts made by the school board and the district courts of Arkansas to resist plans to desegregate schools was unconstitutional. Not only did it infringe on the people’s 14th amendment rights to equal protection, the state’s willingness to defy the ruling of the Supreme Court was in direct opposition of the judicial supremacy ruling of Marbury v Madison. 

Majority Opinion (Warren et al.)

Chief Justice Warren wrote the majority opinion, which was unanimous.This decision held that all states are bound by the rulings made by the Supreme Court as they are the supreme law of the land. Furthermore, states must work to enforce these decisions even if the they do not agree with them. The Justices begin the opinion by stating, “As this case reaches us, it raises questions of the highest importance to the maintenance of our federal system of government. It necessarily involves a claim by the Governor and Legislature of a State that there is no duty on state officials to obey federal court orders resting on this Court’s considered interpretation of the United States Constitution…We reject these contentions” (, 2016). The Supreme court not only argued for judicial supremacy as established in Marbury v Madison, they also argued that the act of barring black children from public schools was an infringement on their fourteenth amendment rights and therefore, in direct violation of the U.S. constitution. The Justices state clearly that “the controlling legal principles are plain. The command of the Fourteenth Amendment is that no “State” shall deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws” (, 2016).

Concurring Opinion (Frankfurter)

Justice Frankfurter wrote a concurring opinion in which he further argues the importance of judicial supremacy and expresses his contempt for the decisions made by Arkansas State Legislators. He believed that respect for the authority of the Supreme Court was vital, “our kind of society cannot endure if the controlling authority of the Law as derived from the Constitution is not to be the tribunal specially charged with the duty of ascertaining and declaring what is “the supreme Law of the Land.”” Justice Frankfurter was appalled by the actions of Governor Faubus and believed they went against the “spirit of our Nation” because “the power of the State was used not to sustain law, but as an instrument for thwarting law.”  His justification for their ruling was based less on the 14th amendment and more on the duty- and the sanctity of that duty- of state governments to uphold the law and abide by the rulings of the Supreme Court.

Dissenting Opinion

Cooper v Aaron was a unanimous decision, there were no dissenting opinions.

Full Text of Opinions

Significance / Impact

The ruling in Cooper v. Aaron has been declared as a landmark decision and has had a strong impact on American society. The main reason being that the Supreme Court’s interpretation of the Constitution is in fact the “law of the land”. With references to Marbury v Madison, the court justified their decision by declaring that the judiciary held supreme authority in regards to the interpretation of the Constitution. The Court ruled that their interpretation is in fact the correct interpretation, therefore the states have to abide by it. Even if those states disagree, they have no authority to create legislation that goes against the federal law because they are bound to it. This decision established the fundamental idea that the Supreme Court has the final say in the interpretation of the of the law of the Constitution. Since then, this idea of judicial supremacy has “been respected by this Court and the Country as a permanent and indispensable feature of our constitutional system” (Stephens, 2012). Marbury v Madison went from a case that established judicial review to a case that granted judicial supremacy to the Supreme Court.

This case was seen as being a great eye-opener for many states thinking about challenging the plans of desegregation. States were not going to be able to create any form of legislation that opposed desegregation because the Supreme Court deemed their interpretations of the 14th Amendment the “law of the land”, meaning that all citizens should have access to equal education. Even though Cooper v Aaron was a unanimous, landmark case, it was not the last desegregation case seen in court. It was still challenged by many states opposed to integration, and the process of desegregation moved at a slower pace than many had imagined.

Second Timeline

Constitutional Provisions

The constitutional provision to this case represents that no agency of the State, of the officers or agents by whom its powers are used, shall deny to any person within its authority the equal protection of the laws (, 2016). Whoever denies or takes away the equal protection of the laws violates the constitutional inhibition.

Government Actions Under Review

  • The Blossom Plan (1956)
  • The decision of the Governor Orval Faubus of Arkansas to dispatch units of the Arkansas National Guard to the school grounds in order to block efforts of desegregation.
  • The legislation passed by the District Court of the Eastern District of Arkansas that struck down the desegregation process put in place after the Brown v Board of Education decision.

Important Precedents

  • Marbury v Madison (1803)
  • Ableman v Booth (1859)
  • 14th Amendment of U.S. Constitution (1868)
  • Virginia v Rives (1880)
  • Buchanan v Warley (1917)
  • Wisconsin v Illinois (1929)
  • Sterling v Constantin (1932)
  • Shelley v Kraemer (1948)
  • Brown v Board of Education (1954)
  • Bolling v Sharpe (1954)
  • Department of Conservation and Development v. Tate (1955)
  • Derrington v Plummer (1956)
  • Pennsylvania v. Board of Directors of City Trusts of Philadelphia (1957)

Important Subsequent Cases

  • Bush v Gore


Web Resources

Academic Books, Articles and Law Reviews


Summer 2016: Sarah Skinner, Allyce Lee, Imani Brown

Tasks for Future Contributors

The second timeline as well as the important subsequent cases could use some elaboration.