Corrigan v. Buckley, 271 U.S. 323 (1926)

2012-06-08 10:42:16

In Corrigan v. Buckley, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously rejected a legal challenge to racially restrictive covenants and thereby made a significant contribution to the upsurge in residential segregation that took place in America’s cities during the first half of the twentieth century.

In 1917, in Buchanan v. Warley, the Court found that municipal ordinances requiring residential segregation violated the fourteenth amendment, relying in significant measure on the fact that it was the government that had mandated the segregation. In response to that decision, in cities across the country, residents entered into private contracts whereby they agreed not to sell or rent their homes to blacks (or members of other minority groups), thereby accomplishing the same goal that the drafters of the municipal ordinances had sought to achieve.

The Corrigan case involved a racially restrictive covenant in the District of Columbia. In 1921, several residents of the District had entered into a covenant pursuant to which they promised to never sell their home to ‘‘any person of the negro race or blood.’’ The next year, Irene Corrigan, one of the white residents who had signed the covenant, contracted to sell her home to a Negro, Helen Curtis. Another white homeowner, John Buckley, sued to block the sale of the home on the grounds that it violated the restrictive covenant. After a lower court granted relief to the plaintiff and the Court ofAppeals for the District of Columbia affirmed, the defendants appealed to the Supreme Court. The defendants argued that the covenant itself (not its judicial enforcement) violated several provisions of the U.S. Constitution, including the Fifth, Thirteenth, and Fourteenth Amendments. At this time, the Supreme Court’s jurisdiction over cases from the District of Columbia was limited to matters raising ‘‘substantial’’ federal claims. The Court determined that the appellants had presented no such claims and hence dismissed the appeal ‘‘for want of jurisdiction.’’ In reaching that conclusion, the Court concluded that both the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments limited only the action of the government, not private parties, and that the Thirteenth Amendment, which prohibited slavery and involuntary servitude, had no application to the sale of real estate. Although the defendants had not challenged the constitutionality of the judicial enforcement of the covenant at any point in the litigation, they did raise the enforcement issue in their arguments to the Supreme Court. The Court noted that this issue was not properly before it, but nevertheless observed—in dicta—that this argument was also ‘‘lacking in substance.’’ Although the Court did not clearly resolve the question whether judicial enforcement of racially restrictive covenants was constitutional, a difficult one since such enforcement arguably implicated state action, after the Corrigan decision, state courts across the nation cited Corrigan for the view that the judicial enforcement of such covenants did not violate the Constitution.

The Corrigan case legitimized racially restrictive covenants and gave encouragement to white property owners to use such covenants to retain the racial integrity of residential neighborhoods. Their use was extensive and contributed to the solidification of the black ghetto in many northern cities. For example, by the 1940s, eighty-five percent of the housing in Detroit and eighty percent of the housing in Chicago was encumbered by a racially restrictive covenant.

Finally, in 1948, the U.S. Supreme Court in Shelley v. Kraemer (1948) declared that judicial enforcement of racially restrictive covenants did violate the Fourteenth Amendment. But the legacy of several decades of enforcement of these covenants meant that residential segregation was well entrenched in most major American cities, a pattern that has never been undone.


References and Further Reading

  • Massey, Douglas S., and Nancy A. Denton. American Apartheid: Segregation and the Making of the Underclass. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1993.
  • McGovney, D. O., Racial Residential Segregation by State Court Enforcement of Restrictive Agreements, Covenants or Conditions in Deeds is Unconstitutional, California Law Review 33 (1945): 5–39.
  • Vose, Clement E. Caucasians Only: The Supreme Court, the NAACP, and the Restrictive Covenant Cases. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1959.

Cases and Statutes Cited

See also Fourteenth Amendment; State Action Doctrine