Shelley v Kraemer Holds State Courts Can’t Enforce Race-Based CovenantsHistorical
In Shelley v Kraemer, 334 U.S. 1 (1948), the U.S. Supreme Court held that the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause banned state courts from enforcing racially restrictive covenants that prohibited black people from owning or occupying real property.
Facts of Shelley v Kraemer
On August 11, 1945, the Shelley’s, an African American couple, purchased a home in St. Louis, Missouri. There were unaware that the property was subject to a restrictive covenant that prevented “people of the Negro or Mongolian Race” from owning or occupying properties in the subdivision. The Kraemer’s, as owners of another property subject to the terms of the restrictive covenant, filed a lawsuit seeking to prevent the Shelley’s from taking possession of the property. The Supreme Court of Missouri ordered the trial court to enforce the covenant, and the Shelley’s appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.
In a companion case, also before the Court, the McGhee’s purchased a Detroit, Michigan property subject to a similar racially restrictive covenant. In the lawsuit that followed, the Supreme Court of Michigan held that the McGhee’s had not been denied rights protected by the Fourteenth Amendment.
Court’s Decision in Shelley v Kraemer
The Supreme Court overturned the state court decisions, concluding that states could not enforce private agreements that exclude persons of a designated race or color from the ownership or occupancy of real property. As Chief Justice Fred M. Vinson wrote on behalf of the Court.
In granting judicial enforcement of the restrictive agreements in these cases, the States have denied petitioners the equal protection of the laws, and that, therefore, the action of the state courts cannot stand. We have noted that freedom from discrimination by the States in the enjoyment of property rights was among the basic objectives sought to be effectuated by the framers of the Fourteenth Amendment. That such discrimination has occurred in these cases is clear. Because of the race or color of these petitioners, they have been denied rights of ownership or occupancy enjoyed as a matter of course by other citizens of different race or color.
According to the Court, “the restrictive racially-based restrictive covenants are not, on their face, invalid under the Fourteenth Amendment.” However, it concluded that “it is violative of the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment for state courts to enforce them.”
As further explained by the Chief Justice, while private parties were free to voluntarily abide by the terms of such agreements, they could not be enforced by state action. He wrote:
These are not cases, as has been suggested, in which the States have merely abstained from action, leaving private individuals free to impose such discriminations as they see fit. Rather, these are cases in which the States have made available to such individuals the full coercive power of government to deny to petitioners, on the grounds of race or color, the enjoyment of property rights in premises which petitioners are willing and financially able to acquire and which the grantors are willing to sell. The difference between judicial enforcement and nonenforcement of the restrictive covenants is the difference to petitioners between being denied rights of property available to other members of the community and being accorded full enjoyment of those rights on an equal footing.
The Supreme Court further rejected the argument that because the state courts stood ready to enforce restrictive covenants excluding white persons from the ownership or occupancy of property covered by them, there could be no equal protection violation. As Chief Justice Vinson noted:
The rights created by the first section of the Fourteenth Amendment are, by its terms, guaranteed to the individual. The rights established are personal rights. It is, therefore, no answer to these petitioners to say that the courts may also be induced to deny white persons rights of ownership and occupancy on grounds of race or color. Equal protection of the laws is not achieved through indiscriminate imposition of inequalities.
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Congress of the United States begun and held at the City of New-York, on Wednesday the fourth of March, one thousand seven hundred and eighty nine.
THE Conventions of a number of the States, having at the time of their adopting the Constitution, expressed a desire, in order to prevent misconstruction or abuse of its powers, that further declaratory and restrictive clauses should be added: And as extending the ground of public confidence in the Government, will best ensure the beneficent ends of its institution.