Washington Law Review


There is perhaps no better setting in which to discuss the role of social research in the courts than that of school desegregation. From its early, rural, southern beginnings in Brown to its present, urban, northern manifestation in the Detroit case of Milliken v. Bradley, empirical evidence has been used in the litigation. In 1954, the Supreme Court declared that "[s]eparate educational facilities are inherently unequal" and ruled that the separate-but-equal doctrine of Plessy v. Ferguson—which for half a century had legitimated Jim Crow legislation—had "no place" in the public schools. Eleanor Wolf, Professor of Sociology at Wayne State University, provides a detailed account of this litigation in Trial and Error: The Detroit School Segregation Case. This article reviews the book and uses it as a springboard to examine broader issues concerning the uses and limits of social research in the judicial process. Since judicial reliance on empirical inquiry may vary according to the problems under consideration, these issues cannot be addressed in the abstract. They have to be discussed in the context of a particular substantive problem; hence, the topic chosen here is school desegregation.

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