Supreme Court Review

Article Title

Reconsidering Palmer v Thompson


In Palmer v Thompson the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of a decision by the city of Jackson, Mississippi, to close all public swimming pools. The city maintained that it would be unable to operate racially desegregated pools safely at acceptable expense after a judgment declaring segregated recreational facilities to be unconstitutional. Palmer is a judicial injustice. In Palmer, as in more notorious delinquencies such as Plessy v Ferguson and Korematsu v United States, the Supreme Court and tribunals below showed themselves to be unreliable sentinels when it came to recognizing racist abuses of power. The Court later expressly repudiated Plessy and Korematsu. It has also jettisoned parts of Palmer’s rationale.7 But the Court has never rejected Palmer’s holding, which remains “good law,” potentially influencing what counts as valid governmental action. The Palmer Supreme Court affirmed the Fifth Circuit en banc which affirmed a Fifth Circuit panel which affirmed a district court—litigations that stretched across eight long, eventful years from 1963 to 1971. These court rulings reveal much about the racial facts of life in the deep South and the nation during the Second Reconstruction. They discredit courts that have been widely lauded for vindicating the rights of civil rights dissidents, for an effort to uproot segregation in disguise was stymied decisively with assistance from the federal judiciary. The Palmer rulings were not only erroneous but profoundly misguided in ways that should prompt negative reassessments of those responsible, including such esteemed figures as Judge Richard Taylor Rives and Justice Hugo L. Black

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