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Shelley v. Kraemer

Citation. 334 U.S. 1 (1948)
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Brief Fact Summary.

Petitioners Shelley, blacks, received property from Fitzgerald a warranty deed to the property in question but the respondents, the owners of the property, sought to take the possession back pursuant to the terms of the restrictive covenant, which petitioners were not aware of its existence.

Synopsis of Rule of Law.

The Fourteenth Amendment enacted in furtherance of its purpose operate to qualify and entitle a colored man to acquire property without state legislation discriminating against him solely because of color.


In 1945, pursuant to a contract of sale, petitioners Shelley, who are Negroes, received from Fitzgerald a warranty deed to the parcel for valuable consideration. The trial court found that petitioners had no actual knowledge of the restrictive agreement at the time of the purchase. After one month from the purchase, respondents, as owners of other property subject to the terms of the restrictive covenant, sued alleging that petitioners Shelley should be restrained from taking possession of the property and the title to the property shall be reinvested in the respondents. The Supreme Court of Missouri held that the agreement effective and concluded that enforcement of its provisions violated no rights guaranteed to petitioners by the Constitution. At the time the court made its decision, petitioners were occupying the property in question.


Does courts have the power to enforce private agreements which have the purpose of excluding persons of designated race or color from the ownership or occupancy of real property?


No, in granting judicial enforcement of the restrictive agreements, the States have denied petitioners the equal protection of the laws and that the action of the state courts cannot stand. 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 this case is clear. Because of the race or color of these petitioners they have been denied rights of ownership and occupancy enjoyed as a matter of course by other citizens of different color or race.


The enforcement of the restrictive agreements by the state courts. Judicial action, however, is not immunized from the operation of the Fourteenth Amendment simply because it is taken pursuant to the state’s common-law policy. 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. When a state action produces the effect of denying rights subject to the protection of the Fourteenth Amendment, it is the obligation of this Court to enforce the constitutional commands.

Moreover, respondents argue that since the state courts stand ready to enforce restrictive covenants excluding white persons, as well blacks, from the ownership or occupancy of property covered by such agreements, enforcement of covenants excluding colored persons may not be deemed a denial of equal protection of the laws to the colored persons who are affected. However, the rights created by the Fourteenth Amendment are guaranteed to the individual. The rights established are personal rights. Therefore, it is no answer to these petitioners to say that the courts may also be induced to deny white persons rights of ownership and occupancy on the grounds of race of color. Equal protection of the laws it not achieved through indiscriminate imposition of inequalities.

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