Shelley v. Kraemer, 334 U.S. 1; 68 S. Ct. 836; 92 L. Ed. 1161 (1948)

Facts—This case involved two instances of enforcement by state courts of private agreements, known as restrictive covenants, which barred African Americans from holding real property in certain sections of St. Louis and Detroit. Shelley, a black, purchased some property in a section of St. Louis covered by a restrictive covenant that barred such ownership. Other owners of property in the same area requested relief, but a Missouri trial court refused it. However, the supreme court of Missouri reversed the ruling of the lower court and ordered the African Americans to vacate their newly occupied property. The Detroit case was similar. Blacks acquired property in a privately restricted zone and were ordered out by a state court. The supreme court of Michigan upheld the lower court.

Question—Do orders by state courts enforcing private restrictive covenants based on race and color violate the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment?


ReasonsC.J. Vinson (6–0). Restrictive covenants drawn up by private individuals do not in themselves violate the Fourteenth Amendment. As long as they are completely private and voluntary, they are within the law. Here, however, there was more. Through their courts, the states aided in the enforcement of the covenants. Indeed, if it were not for the courts, the purpose of the agreements would not be fulfilled. The fact that the state merely carries out something started by private individuals does not free the state from a part in the original intent; nor does the fact that it is the judicial branch of the government that carries out the discrimination. The judicial branch of the government is subject to the Constitution as much as are the executive and legislative branches. The states here involved were playing, through their judiciaries, an integral part in a policy of discrimination in clear violation of the Fourteenth Amendment, which prohibits the states from denying equal protection of the laws.

NoteShelley did not invalidate private restrictive covenants but only state enforcement. Jones v. Alfred H. Mayer Co., 392 U.S. 409 (1968), however, ruled that the Civil Rights Act of 1866, enacted by Congress to enforce the Thirteenth Amendment, bars all racial discrimination, private as well as public, in the sale or rental of property.

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