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Shelley v. Kraemer

Citation. 22 Ill. 334 U.S. 1, 68 S. Ct. 836, 92 L. Ed. 1161 (1948)
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Brief Fact Summary.

In 1911 a group of property owners signed a restrictive covenant prohibiting individuals who are not Caucasian from inhabiting the property they currently owned on a street front in St. Louis, for a term of fifty years. In 1945 Petitioners Shelly bought a pierce of property on this street without knowledge of the restrictive covenant. When the Petitioners attempted to inhabit this land, Kraemer and others party to the covenant (Respondents) sued to prevent the Petitioners from moving in.

Synopsis of Rule of Law.

Judicial intervention in enforcing restrictive covenants that deprives an individual of property rises to the level of a state action, and therefore affords the deprived individual the rights and privileges afforded by the Fourteenth Amendment.


This case joins together two cases, one from the Supreme Court of Missouri, and another from the Supreme Court of Michigan.
In the first case, on appeal from the Supreme Court of Missouri, involves an agreement made on February 16, 1911. In this agreement, thirty out of a total of thirty-nine property owners fronting both sides of a street in the city of St. Louis signed an agreement that for the next fifty years none of the property on involved in this agreement should be inhabited by a member any race other than Caucasian. On August 11, 1945, pursuant to a contract of sale, Petitioners who are African-American, for valuable consideration received from one Fitzgerald, a warranty deed to the parcel in question. The trial court found that Petitioners had no knowledge of the restrictive government at the time of purchase. On October 9, 1945, Respondents, as owners of other property subject to the terms of the restrictive covenant brought suit in the Circuit Court of the city of St. Louis to restrain Petitioners from taking possession of the property. The trial court denied the requested relief on the groun
d that the restrictive agreement never became final and complete. The Supreme Court of Missouri reversed and directed the trail court to grant the relief sought by the Respondents. The second trial court held the agreement effective and concluded that the enforcements of the provisions of the agreement violated no rights guaranteed to the Petitioners by the Federal Constitution.
The second case, on appeal from the Supreme Court of Michigan, is materially similar to the Missouri case.
Petitioners in both cases believe that judicial enforcement of the restrictive agreements in these cases violated rights guaranteed to petitioners by the Fourteenth Amendment of the Federal Constitution and Acts of Congress passed pursuant to that Amendment. They specifically allege they have been denied equal protection of the laws, deprived property without due process and denied privileges and immunities of citizens of the United States.


Whether the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment inhibits judicial enforcement by state courts of restrictive covenants based on race or color?
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?


Yes and Yes. The judgment of the Supreme Court of Missouri is reversed.
Although restrictive agreements standing alone cannot be regarded as a violation of any rights guaranteed to petitioners by the Fourteenth Amendment as long as the purposes of these agreements are effectuated by voluntary adherence to its terms, it does not rise to the level of state action until they are secured only by judicial enforcement by state courts. In this case there is no doubt that if not for the active intervention of the state courts, supported fully by state power, that the petitioners would have been free to occupy the properties in question without restraint. This is backed up by the fact that the owners of the properties were willing sellers and the two parties consummated contacts of sale. In these cases the states made available to the individuals the full coercive power of the government to prohibit Petitioners from inhabiting the land.
Equal protection of the laws is not achieved through indiscriminate imposition of inequities. Therefore, by granting judicial enforcement of the restrictive agreements in these cases, the states denied petitioners the equal protection of the laws and that, therefore, the action of the state courts cannot stand. The Court notes 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. It is clear that such discrimination occurred in these cases, as the Petitioners were denied rights of ownership or occupancy enjoyed as a matter of course by other citizens of different race or power.


This case expands idea of state action to include those cases involving judicial enforcement of restrictive covenants. It can potentially be interpreted even more broadly to hold that all agreements requiring judicial intervention for enforcement, which are later enforced by judicial action can also rise to the level of state action under a Fourteenth Amendment analysis. But, this decision can also potentially be interpreted narrowly as the Court’s attempt to eliminate an abhorrent type of restrictive covenant that was used to racially segregate communities.

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