Shelley v. Kraemer
334 U.S. 1 (1948)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Shelley v. Kraemer, 334 U.S. 1 (1948)

Shelley v. Kraemer

Argued January 15-16, 1948

Decided May 3, 1948*

334 U.S. 1

Syllabus

Private agreements to exclude persons of designated race or color from the use or occupancy of real estate for residential purposes do not violate the Fourteenth Amendment; but it is violative of the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment for state courts to enforce them. Corrigan v. Buckley, 271 U. S. 323, distinguished. Pp. 334 U. S. 8-23.

(a) Such private agreements, standing alone, do not violate any rights guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment. Pp. 334 U. S. 12-13.

(b) The actions of state courts and judicial officers in their official capacities are actions of the states within the meaning of the Fourteenth Amendment. Pp. 334 U. S. 14-18.

(c) In granting judicial enforcement of such private agreements in these cases, the states acted to deny petitioners the equal protection of the laws, contrary to the Fourteenth Amendment. Pp. 334 U. S. 18-23.

(d) The fact that state courts stand ready to enforce restrictive covenants excluding white persons from the ownership or occupancy of property covered by them does not prevent the enforcement of covenants excluding colored persons from constituting a denial of equal protection of the laws, since the rights created by § 1 of the Fourteenth Amendment are guaranteed to the individual. Pp. 334 U. S. 21-22.

Page 334 U. S. 2

(e) Denial of access to the courts to enforce such restrictive covenants does not deny equal protection of the laws to the parties to such agreements. P. 334 U. S. 22.

355 Mo. 814, 198 S.W.2d 679, and 316 Mich. 614, 25 N.W.2d 638, reversed.

No. 72. The Supreme Court of Missouri reversed a judgment of a state trial court denying enforcement of a private agreement restricting the use or occupancy of certain real estate to persons of the Caucasian race. 355 Mo. 814,198 S.W.2d 679. This Court granted certiorari. 331 U.S. 803. Reversed, p. 334 U. S. 23.

No. 87. The Supreme Court of Michigan affirmed a judgment of a state trial court enjoining violation of a private agreement restricting the use or occupancy of certain real estate to persons of the Caucasian race. 316 Mich. 614, 25 N.W.2d 638. This Court granted certiorari. 331 U.S. 804. Reversed, p. 334 U. S. 23.

Page 334 U. S. 4

Primary Holding
Although racially restrictive real estate covenants are not per se illegal, since they do not involve state action, a court cannot enforce them under the Fourteenth Amendment.
Facts
In 1911, a neighborhood in St. Louis, Missouri enacted a racially restrictive covenant designed to prevent African-Americans and Asian-Americans ("people of the Negro or Asian Race") from occupying property in the community. More than three decades later, in 1945, an African-American family named Shelley moved into the neighborhood without being informed that the covenant existed. Another resident of the community, Louis Kraemer, brought a suit to enforce the covenant and prevent the Shelleys from moving into their house, even though he lived several blocks away.

Meanwhile, an African-American family named McGhee purchased property in a neighborhood in Detroit, Michigan that also was subject to a racially restrictive covenant. Like the Shelleys, the McGhees were unaware of its existence at the time of the transaction. Like Kraemer, one of the other inhabitants of the community, named Sipes, brought a case to enforce the covenant.

Both covenants were enforced at the level of the state supreme courts because they were private agreements rather than state action and thus did not violate the Fourteenth Amendment. They also found them to be valid under principles of property law such that they were enforceable against later owners and third parties. When the cases were appealed, the Supreme Court consolidated them for review.

Procedural History

Supreme Court of Missouri - 198 S.W.2d 679 (Mo.1947)

The Fourteenth Amendment does not make these covenants void, despite their overtly racist nature, because they were devised by private entities rather than the government.

Michigan Supreme Court - 25 N.W.2d 638 (Mich. 614)

This ruling was based on reasoning similar to the Missouri decision. The Court also emphasized that the covenants were properly designed to run with the land and last beyond the individuals who were originally parties to them.

Issues & Holdings

Issue: Whether courts could enforce similar covenants that restricted against the rights of whites without violating the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment?
Holding: Yes

Opinions

Majority

  • Frederick Moore Vinson (Author)
  • Hugo Lafayette Black
  • Felix Frankfurter
  • William Orville Douglas
  • Frank Murphy
  • Harold Hitz Burton

The Court noted that individuals are free to voluntarily abide by the terms of a racially restrictive covenant. It found that state action would occur, however, if a government entity like a court intervened to enforce a policy that was devised by private parties. However, courts would be allowed to enforce similar covenants against whites without violating the Equal Protection Clause.

Recused

  • Robert Houghwout Jackson
  • Wiley Blount Rutledge
  • Stanley Forman Reed

Case Commentary

This was a groundbreaking case at the time because it expanded the scope of what conduct can be considered state action under the Fourteenth Amendment. Since then, many laws at federal, state, and local levels have unambiguously banned discrimination in private residential housing.

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