Plessy Preserved: Agencies and the Effective Constitution

Joy Milligan | Law | Yale Law Journal, 2020

Sometimes the judicial Constitution is not the one that matters. The administrative state is capable of creating divergent legal frameworks that powerfully shape public life. But to the extent they reside outside of judicial precedent, such administrative regimes can go unrecognized. In this Article, I chart the history of an alternative “administrative Constitution” that remains etched in U.S. cities. Drawing on original archival research, I show that throughout the twentieth century, the federal administrators that oversaw the nation’s public-housing program implemented and defended a legal regime based on Plessy v. Ferguson’s “separate but equal” principle—even after the judiciary announced the opposing mandate of Brown v. Board of Education, and after the political branches adopted formal civil-rights reforms in the 1960s. Why did an agency led by liberal reformers and dedicated to serving the poor do this? Administrators believed the public-housing program was politically unsustainable without racial segregation, while agency lawyers argued for preserving the older framework—which had once been understood as a progressive triumph in its commitment to racial “equity.” Procedural barriers shielded the agency from defending that entrenched framework in the courts. Uncovering public housing’s racial Constitution challenges conventional legal narratives around civil rights, by foregrounding the role of federal administrators in thwarting Brown. Simultaneously, Plessy’s resilience in the administrative realm underscores the ongoing need to unearth such regimes, to better assess agencies’ role in establishing the constitutional principles that actually govern us—that is, in determining the effective Constitution.