May 3, 1948: Shelley v. Kraemer



Racial and religious restrictive covenants used to be distressingly familiar around the nation.  I have seen them in old deeds I have examined in reference to real estate transactions.  These covenants required purchasers of a piece of real estate not to re-sell it to specified racial or religious groups.  The groups targeted were usually blacks, people of Asian descent and Jews.  In 1926 the United States Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal in Corrigan v. Buckley, 271 U.S. 323 (1926) the United States Supreme Court unanimously refused to hear an appeal in a case enforcing such a covenant, the Court unanimously finding that since the covenant only involved private parties, the US Constitution did not forbid such a covenant.

22 years later in the case of Shelley v. Kraemer Shelley v. Kraemer,  334 U.S. 1 (1948).  In a unanimous opinion written by Chief Justice Fred Vinson the Court ruled that while the private restrictive covenants were not unconstitutional, state judicial proceedings to enforce them constituted state action and were unconstitutional under the Fourteenth Amendment:



Since the decision of this Court in the Civil Rights Cases, 109 U. S. 3 (1883), the principle has become firmly embedded in our constitutional law that the action inhibited by the first section of the Fourteenth Amendment is only such action as may fairly be said to be that of the States. That Amendment erects no shield against merely private conduct, however discriminatory or wrongful. [Footnote 12]

We conclude, therefore, that the restrictive agreements, standing alone, cannot be regarded as violative of any rights guaranteed to petitioners by the Fourteenth Amendment. So long as the purposes of those agreements are effectuated by voluntary adherence to their terms, it would appear clear that there has been no action by the State, and the provisions of the Amendment have not been violated. Cf. Corrigan v. Buckley, supra.

But here there was more. These are cases in which the purposes of the agreements were secured only by judicial enforcement by state courts of the restrictive terms of the agreements. The respondents urge that judicial enforcement of private agreements does not amount to state action, or, in any event, the participation of the State is so attenuated in character as not to amount to state action within the meaning of the Fourteenth Amendment. Finally, it is suggested, even if the States in these cases may be deemed to have acted in the constitutional sense, their action did not deprive petitioners of rights guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment. We move to a consideration of these matters.


That the action of state courts and judicial officers in their official capacities is to be regarded as action of the State within the meaning of the Fourteenth Amendment is a proposition which has long been established by decisions of this Court. That principle was given expression in the earliest cases involving the construction of the terms of the Fourteenth Amendment. Thus, in Virginia v. Rives, 100 U. S. 313, 100 U. S. 318 (1880), this Court stated:

“It is doubtless true that a State may act through different agencies, either by its legislative, its executive, or its judicial authorities, and the prohibitions of the amendment extend to all action of the State denying equal protection of the laws, whether it be action by one of these agencies or by another.”

In Ex parte Virginia, 100 U. S. 339, 100 U. S. 347 (1880), the Court observed: “A State acts by its legislative, its executive, or its judicial authorities. It can act in no other way.” In the Civil Rights Cases, 109 U. S. 3, 109 U. S. 11, 17 (1883), this Court pointed out that the Amendment makes void “State action of every kind” which is inconsistent with the guaranties therein contained, and extends to manifestations of “State authority in the shape of laws, customs, or judicial or executive proceedings.” Language to like effect is employed no less than eighteen times during the course of that opinion. [Footnote 13]

Similar expressions, giving specific recognition to the fact that judicial action is to be regarded as action of the State for the purposes of the Fourteenth Amendment, are to be found in numerous cases which have been more recently decided. In Twining v. New Jersey, 211 U. S. 78, 211 U. S. 90-91 (1908), the Court said: “The judicial act of the highest court of the State, in authoritatively construing and enforcing its laws, is the act of the State.” In Brinkerhoff-Faris Trust & Savings Co. v. Hill, 281 U. S. 673, 281 U. S. 680 (1930), the Court, through Mr. Justice Brandeis, stated:

“The federal guaranty of due process extends to state action through its judicial as well as through its legislative, executive or administrative branch of government.”

Further examples of such declarations in the opinions of this Court are not lacking. [Footnote 14]

One of the earliest applications of the prohibitions contained in the Fourteenth Amendment to action of state judicial officials occurred in cases in which Negroes had been excluded from jury service in criminal prosecutions by reason of their race or color. These cases demonstrate, also, the early recognition by this Court that state action in violation of the Amendment’s provisions is equally repugnant to the constitutional commands whether directed by state statute or taken by a judicial official in the absence of statute. Thus, in Strauder v. West Virginia, 100 U. S. 303 (1880), this Court declared invalid a state statute restricting jury service to white persons as amounting to a denial of the equal protection of the laws to the colored defendant in that case. In the same volume of the reports, the Court in Ex parte Virginia, supra, held that a similar discrimination imposed by the action of a state judge denied rights protected by the Amendment, despite the fact that the language of the state statute relating to jury service contained no such restrictions.

The action of state courts in imposing penalties or depriving parties of other substantive rights without providing adequate notice and opportunity to defend has, of course, long been regarded as a denial of the due process of law guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment. Brinkerhoff-Faris Trust & Savings Co. v. Hill, supra. Cf. Pennoyer v. Neff, 95 U. S. 714 (1878). [Footnote 15]

In numerous eases, this Court has reversed criminal convictions in state courts for failure of those courts to provide the essential ingredients of a fair hearing. Thus, it has been held that convictions obtained in state courts under the domination of a mob are void. Moore v. Dempsey, 261 U. S. 86 (1923). And see Frank v. Mangum, 237 U. S. 309 (1915). Convictions obtained bycoerced confessions, [Footnote 16] by the use of perjured testimony known by the prosecution to be such, [Footnote 17] or without the effective assistance of counsel, [Footnote 18] have also been held to be exertions of state authority in conflict with the fundamental rights protected by the Fourteenth Amendment.

But the examples of state judicial action which have been held by this Court to violate the Amendment’s commands are not restricted to situations in which the judicial proceedings were found in some manner to be procedurally unfair. It has been recognized that the action of state courts in enforcing a substantive common law rule formulated by those courts, may result in the denial of rights guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment, even though the judicial proceedings in such cases may have been in complete accord with the most rigorous conceptions of procedural due process. [Footnote 19] Thus, in American Federation of Labor v. Swing, 312 U. S. 321 (1941), enforcement by state courts of the common law policy of the State, which resulted in the restraining of peaceful picketing, was held to be state action of the sort prohibited by the Amendment’s guaranties of freedom of discussion. [Footnote 20] In Cantwell v. Connecticut, 310 U. S. 296   (1940), a conviction in a state court of the common law crime of breach of the peace was, under the circumstances of the case, found to be a violation of the Amendment’s commands relating to freedom of religion. In Bridges v. California, 314 U. S. 252 (1941), enforcement of the state’s common law rule relating to contempts by publication was held to be state action inconsistent with the prohibitions of the Fourteenth Amendment. [Footnote 21] And cf. Chicago, Burlington and Quincy R. Co. v. Chicago, 166 U. S. 226 (1897).

The short of the matter is that, from the time of the adoption of the Fourteenth Amendment until the present, it has been the consistent ruling of this Court that the action of the States to which the Amendment has reference includes action of state courts and state judicial officials. Although, in construing the terms of the Fourteenth Amendment, differences have from time to time been expressed as to whether particular types of state action may be said to offend the Amendment’s prohibitory provisions, it has never been suggested that state court action is immunized from the operation of those provisions simply because the act is that of the judicial branch of the state government.


Against this background of judicial construction, extending over a period of some three-quarters of a century, we are called upon to consider whether enforcement by state courts of the restrictive agreements in these cases may be deemed to be the acts of those States, and, if so, whether that action has denied these petitioners the equal protection of the laws which the Amendment was intended to insure.

We have no doubt that there has been state action in these cases in the full and complete sense of the phrase. The undisputed facts disclose that petitioners were willing purchasers of properties upon which they desired to establish homes. The owners of the properties were willing sellers, and contracts of sale were accordingly consummated. It is clear that, but for the active intervention of the state courts, supported by the full panoply of state power, petitioners would have been free to occupy the properties in question without restraint.

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 enforcement of the restrictive agreements by the state courts in these cases was directed pursuant to the common law policy of the States as formulated by those courts in earlier decisions. [Footnote 22] In the Missouri case, enforcement of the covenant was directed in the first instance by the highest court of the State after the trial court had determined the agreement to be invalid for want of the requisite number of signatures. In the Michigan case, the order of enforcement by the trial court was affirmed by the highest state court. [Footnote 23] The judicial action in each case bears the clear and unmistakable imprimatur of the State. We have noted that previous decisions of this Court have established the proposition that judicial action is not immunized from the operation of the Fourteenth Amendment simply because it is taken pursuant to the state’s common law policy. [Footnote 24] Nor is the Amendment ineffective simply because the particular pattern of discrimination, which the State has enforced, was defined initially by the terms of a private agreement. State action, as that phrase is understood for the purposes of the Fourteenth Amendment, refers to exertions of state power in all forms. And when the effect of that action is to deny rights subject to the protection of the Fourteenth Amendment, it is the obligation of this Court to enforce the constitutional commands.

We hold that, 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. [Footnote 25] The Fourteenth Amendment declares “that all persons, whether colored or white, shall stand equal before the laws of the States, and, in regard to the colored race, for whose protection the amendment was primarily designed, that no discrimination shall be made against them by law because of their color.


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