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Shelley v. Kraemer

Todd Berman

InstructorTodd Berman

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CaseCast –  "What you need to know"

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.

Petitioners Shelley, who were black, bought a home in a neighborhood in which thirty out of thirty-nine parcel owners had signed a restrictive covenant which stated that no home was to be sold to any person who was black, which led to the suit by the neighborhood to undo the sale of the property to Shelley.

Synopsis of Rule of Law.

The Fourteenth Amendment’s guarantee of equal protection applies in this case to prohibit the enforcement of the restrictive covenant at issue due to the fact that the provisions of the Fourteenth Amendment apply only where there is state action, which is found in this case due to the action of the Supreme Court of Missouri in enforcing the agreement, the result of which is to deprive the Petitioners of their property.


On February 16, 1911, thirty out of thirty-nine property owners in a neighborhood in St. Louis, Missouri entered into a restrictive covenant which stated that for a term of fifty years no property in the neighborhood could be sold or rented to any black or Asian persons. On August 11, 1945, Petitioners Shelley, who were black, bought a property in the neighborhood from Fitzgerald, and Petitioners were not aware of the restrictive covenant at the time of the purchase. Respondents, who were the other owners in the neighborhood, sued in the Circuit Court of St. Louis on the basis of the restrictive covenant with the intention of having the Court divest the Petitioners of their newly acquired property and revert title to Fitzgerald, or to some other person at the Court’s discretion. The Circuit Court declined to enforce the agreement on the basis that not all of the property owners had signed the original covenant. The case was then appealed to the Missouri Supreme Court which reversed the Circuit Court’s decision and held that the provisions of the covenant were enforceable against Petitioner. Petitioners then appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.


Does the action of the state court in enforcing the restrictive covenant deprive Petitioner of rights guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment and acts of Congress?


Yes. The judgment of the Supreme Court of Missouri is reversed.

First, the Court noted prior decisions and found that the restrictive agreements, standing alone, could not be regarded as a violation of any Fourteenth Amendment rights. The Court found that the requirement for state action was not met in a purely private and voluntary covenant. However, the Court found that in this case there was state action by virtue of the Supreme Court of Missouri’s decision to enforce the restrictive covenant. The Court found that state action includes actions by legislative bodies and also courts and judicial officials.

The Court held that in granting judicial sanction to an agreement which, by its terms, would deprive the Petitioners of equal protections guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment is an action which cannot stand. Therefore, the Court held that the Supreme Court of Missouri had to be reversed.  Because the Court decided the case on the question of equal protection it was unnecessary to consider the Petitioner’s arguments regarding due process and whether the Petitioners had been denied privileges and immunities accorded to citizens of the United States.


This is a case which relates to the case of Jones v. Alfred H. Mayer Co., infra, where the Court revisits this decision and expands the prohibition against this type of restrictive covenant to both public and private discrimination. It is illustrative to compare the decisions and consider the evolution of legal precedence.

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