Burton v. Wilmington Parking Authority,
365 U.S. 715 (1961)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Burton v. Wilmington Parking Authority, 365 U.S. 715 (1961)

Burton v. Wilmington Parking Authority

No. 164

Argued February 21, 23, 1961

Decided April 17, 1961

365 U.S. 715


A restaurant located in a publicly owned and operated automobile parking building refused to serve appellant food or drink solely because he was a Negro. The building had been built with public funds for public purposes, and it was owned and operated by an agency of the State of Delaware, from which the private operator of the restaurant leased its premises. Claiming that refusal to serve him abridged his rights under the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, appellant sued in a state court for declaratory and injunctive relief against the restaurant and the state agency. The Supreme Court of Delaware held that he was not entitled to relief, on the ground that the restaurant's action was not state action within the meaning of the Fourteenth Amendment and that the restaurant was not required by a Delaware statute to serve all persons entering its place of business. An appeal was taken to this Court on the ground that the state statute had been construed unconstitutionally.


1. The appeal is dismissed, since the judgment did not depend for its ultimate support upon a determination of the constitutional validity of the state statute; but, treating the papers whereon the appeal was taken as a petition for writ of certiorari, certiorari is granted, since the case presents an important constitutional question under the Fourteenth Amendment. Pp. 365 U. S. 717, 365 U. S. 721.

2. In view of all the circumstances of this case, including the facts that the restaurant was physically and financially an integral part of a public building, built and maintained with public funds, devoted to a public parking service, and owned and operated by an agency of the State for public purposes, the State was a joint participant in the operation of the restaurant, and its refusal to serve appellant violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Pp. 365 U. S. 721-726.

3. When a State leases public property in the manner and for the purpose shown to have been the case here, the proscriptions of

Page 365 U. S. 716

the Fourteenth Amendment must be complied with by the lessee as certainly as though they were binding covenants written into the agreement itself. P. 365 U. S. 726.

___ Del. ___,157 A. 2d 894, reversed.

Primary Holding

A business that is located in and can be considered part of a state-owned public facility may not discriminate against protected groups under the Fourteenth Amendment, since its discrimination can be classified as state action.


Before it started work on a new public parking facility, the Wilmington Parking Authority learned that it would not be able to finance its construction costs only from selling bonds and gaining revenue from the parking of cars. To secure additional financing, the Authority arranged long-term leases with tenants for the commercial use of some of the space in the parking facility. Eagle Coffee Shoppe signed a 20-year lease to use part of the space as a restaurant. The Authority refrained from using its power to require that the restaurant services be made available to the general public, and Eagle Coffee Shoppe was not required under Delaware law to serve all persons entering the shop because it was a restaurant rather than an inn.

Eagle Coffee Shoppe refused to serve Burton when he entered the restaurant because he was African-American. Burton brought a claim for declaratory and injunctive relief against the Authority, arguing that the restaurant leased from the Authority, which was a state agency, and therefore the discrimination could be classified as state action. The Delaware Supreme Court felt otherwise, finding that the action could not be attributed to the Authority or classified as state action because Eagle Coffee Shoppe was acting in a private capacity under its lease. Of the cost of building the facility, only 15 percent had come from public funds, and only 30.5 percent of that amount came from parking fees. The restaurant did not have a public entrance from the parking area, and it had spent much of its own money on furnishings. It did not have any interactions with the Authority other than paying annual rent.



  • Tom C. Clark (Author)
  • Earl Warren
  • Hugo Lafayette Black
  • William Orville Douglas
  • William Joseph Brennan, Jr.

The land and building in which the restaurant was located were publicly owned, and funds from the city were responsible for buying the real estate as well as building and maintaining the facility. The sources of the funds were city loans and revenue bonds as well as the proceeds of rentals and parking services out of which the loans and bonds were payable. It was contradictory that one part of the facility, a public parking service, was open to the public, while certain groups could not receive service in another part of the facility, the restaurant. Although the Authority did not include anti-discrimination provisions in the lease, its failure to do so constitutes a type of inaction that may be categorized as state action because it makes the government a party to the refusal of service. The restaurant and the Authority are so physically and financially intertwined that the private entity's conduct may be imputed to the government.


  • Potter Stewart (Author)


  • John Marshall Harlan II (Author)
  • Charles Evans Whittaker


  • Felix Frankfurter (Author)

Case Commentary

State action often is imputed to the actions of a private party that has a symbiotic relationship with the state.

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