Shelley v. Kraemer, 334 U.S. 1 (1948)

2012-09-05 08:14:34

As a powerful weapon against discrimination, the Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution prohibits only state (not private) actions. The United States Supreme Court decision in Shelley, however, made a remarkable effort to eliminate at least some private discrimination.

On February 1911, thirty of thirty-nine owners of property in a district located in St. Louis signed a restrictive covenant, which prohibits ‘‘any person not of the Caucasian race’’ from occupying any part of the property for a term of fifty years. These thirty owners held title to forty-seven parcels, including the contended one in Shelley, in a total of fifty-seven parcels. On August 1945, Shelley, who is African American, purchased a parcel in such a district without actual knowledge of the restrictive agreement. Owners of other property brought lawsuit to restrain Shelly from taking possession of the property. The trial court denied their request on the ground that the restrictive agreement had never become complete and final because it failed to collect signatures of all owners. The Supreme Court of Missouri reversed and held the agreement effective.

The issue before the U.S. Supreme Court (the Court) is ‘‘whether the equal protection of the Fourteenth Amendment inhibits judicial enforcement by state courts of such restrictive covenants based on race or color.’’ The Court noticed that the restrictive covenant in this case only serves one purpose, that is, to exclude the use of the properties by racial minorities, and it is therefore discriminatory in nature. The Court affirmed that the rights to ‘‘acquire, enjoy, own and dispose of property’’ are essential rights guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment. In its precedent, the Court had declared unconstitutional several discriminatory ordinances that denied racial minorities the rights of property. However, the present case did not involve actions by state legislature or city councils. Rather, the agreement was made by a group of individuals and therefore not governed by the Constitution. The focus now is whether the judicial enforcement of such a private agreement is a state action governed by the Constitution. The Court held that actions of state courts and judicial officials are state actions. In Shelley, both buyers and sellers were willing parties in a transaction. ‘‘But for active intervention of the state courts, supported by the full panoply of state power,’’ Shelley would have been free to occupy the property. As a result, the state had denied Shelley the equal protection of the laws.

Although three Justices did not participate in the case, all other six Justices in the Court agreed on its decision. Shelley became a major victory for racial minorities in the protection of their property rights. In 1994, the Federal Housing Act, 42 U.S.C.A. }}3601- 3631, was enacted as Title VIII of the Civil Rights Act of 1968 to impose further restraints against potential discrimination. On the other hand, Shelley raised a concern about how broad the Court is willing to interpret the concept of ‘‘state action.’’ Critics are afraid that an overbroad reading of state action may intervene and hamper individuals’ private lives.


References and Further Reading

  • Madry, Alan, Private Accountability and the Fourteenth Amendment: State Action, Federalism and Congress, University of Missouri Law Review 59 (1994): 499–568.
  • ———, State Action and the Obligation of the States to Prevent Private Harm: The Rehnquist Transformation and the Betrayal of Fundamental Commitments, Southern California Law Review 65 (1992): 781–844.
  • Saxer, Shelley Ross. Shelley v. Kraemer’s Fiftieth Anniversary: ‘‘A Time for Keeping; a Time for Throwing Away’’?, Kansas Law Review 47 (1998): 61–120.

Cases and Statues Cited

  • Federal Housing Act, 42 U.S.C.A. }}3601–3631