Moore v. East Cleveland, 431 U.S. 494 (1977)

A plurality of the U.S. Supreme Court (Justices Powell, Brennan, Marshall, and Blackmun) held that an East Cleveland housing ordinance limiting the occupancy of a dwelling unit to members of a single family, but defining ‘‘family’’ to include only certain categories of relatives, was unconstitutional because it violated the substantive due process guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment. Moore lived in her East Cleveland home with her two children and two grandchildren, who were cousins. In 1973, she received a notice of violation from the city, stating that one of her grandsons was an ‘‘illegal occupant’’ according to the housing ordinance. When Moore failed to remove the child from the home, the city filed a criminal charge. She was convicted and sentenced to a fine and jail time.

The U.S. Supreme Court distinguished this case from previous cases on the basis that other cases affected only unrelated individuals. The Court held that when the government intrudes on choices concerning family living arrangements, the usual deference to the legislature was inappropriate, and that the Court should carefully examine the objectives of the ordinance and the extent to which those objectives are served. The government argued that the ordinance addressed overcrowding, traffic congestion, and the financial burden imposed on the school system. The Court found that, contrary to the government’s assertions, the city’s interests were only marginally served by the ordinance. The Court pointed out that the ordinance distinguished upon grounds of the traditional nuclear family and that traditional families with a large number of children would not be subject to the limits placed by the ordinance, but families comprising extended family members choosing to reside in one residence would be in violation of it.

In making its finding of unconstitutionality, the Court balanced the tenuous relationship to the government’s objectives vs. the strong constitutional protection of the sanctity of the family, as established by numerous Supreme Court decisions, extending the constitutional protection provided in other situations to the family choice involved in this case and not confined to the arbitrary limits of the nuclear family. The Court found support for its holding from careful ‘‘respect for the teachings of history [and] solid recognition of the basic values that underlie our society’’ and that the nation’s history and tradition compelled a larger conception of the family. The Court concluded that the choice of relatives in such a degree of kinship to live together may not lightly be denied by the government.

Justice Stevens concurred in the outcome of unconstitutionality, but found that, under previous cases, an ordinance could only be declared unconstitutional if it were clearly arbitrary and unreasonable as having no substantial relation to the public health, safety, morals, or general welfare. Justice Stevens concluded that the city had failed to explain the need for a rule that would allow a homeowner to have grandchildren live with her if they are brothers but not if they are cousins, and that the ordinance constituted a taking of property without due process and without compensation.

DAVID M. CARR

References and Further Reading

  • Rubenfeld, Jed, The New Unwritten Constitution, Duke Law Journal 1 (2001): 289.

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