The Skipwith Case
Justine Wise Polier, 1903 - 1987
Throughout her career, Polier used her court to fight religious and racial discrimination. Her most famous and influential decision in this battle was the 1958 In the matter of Skipwith. The Skipwiths, along with a group of other black parents, boycotted the segregated public school where they believed their daughter was receiving an inferior education. In response, the Board of Education charged the parents with neglect.
Residential discrimination meant that New York public schools were segregated in reality (de facto), but not by law (de jure) as in the South. This made northern segregation much more difficult to combat in court, but Polier's Skipwith decision helped publicize the issue and make it more vulnerable to legal action.
Polier ruled that while the Board was not responsible for existing de facto segregation, it was still at fault for providing an inferior education to children in non-white schools, which had demonstrably fewer and less qualified teachers. Polier condemned the Board of Education as committing a "terrible injustice" towards children, "who already have to suffer the blighting effect of segregation." She stated that until the Board of Education corrected this situation, "it has no moral or legal right to ask that this Court shall punish parents or deprive them of custody of their children, for refusal to accept an unconstitutional condition which exists in the schools."
- Some examples of case by case basis on which Polier fought: In the matter of Kirk ____ and Wesley ___ alleged to be neglected children, Elsa Edlit (SPCC), petitioner against Vivian Odems, mother and William Bell, father, respondents, p.4-10, 11 March 1966, Polier's Manuscripts, box 19 folder 229; On Petition of ___, In the Matter of John ___15, and Charles ___ 5, Domestic Relations Court of the City of New York, Children's Court Divisions, County of NY, part I, 7 July 193, Polier's Manuscripts, box 22 folder 256. All cases cited in Rachel Nash, "Justine Wise Polier: The Conscience of the Juvenile Court." Thesis. Harvard University, 1998.
- On the implications of Polier's decision, see Nash 72-78.
- For Polier's decision and quotes on "terrible injustice" and, "it has no moral or legal right to ask..." see Justine Wise Polier, "In the Matter of Charlene Skipwith, Sheldon Rector, children twelve years of age," 15 Dec. 1958, Polier papers, box 21 folder 247.