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Law School Case Brief

Buchanan v. Warley - 245 U.S. 60, 38 S. Ct. 16 (1917)


The Federal Constitution and laws passed within its authority are by the express terms of that instrument made the supreme law of the land. The Fourteenth Amendment protects life, liberty, and property from invasion by the states without due process of law. Property is more than the mere thing which a person owns. It is elementary that it includes the right to acquire, use, and dispose of it. The Constitution protects these essential attributes of property. Property consists of the free use, enjoyment, and disposal of a person's acquisitions without control or diminution save by the law of the land. 


The seller, who was a white person, brought suit for specific performance against the purchaser, who was a black person, on a contract for the sale of real property. The purchaser asserted as a defense a local ordinance that forbade black persons from purchasing the lot in question. The seller asserted that the ordinance was unconstitutional upon the ground that it violated the Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution because it abridged the privileges and immunities of citizens of the United States to acquire and enjoy property, took property without due process of law, and denied equal protection of the laws. The seller thus argued that the ordinance should not be a bar to the buyer's performance of the contract to sell the property. The Kentucky Court of Appeals found the ordinance to be constitutional and a complete defense to the action. The seller appealed.


Was a 1914 city ordinance, which inhibited the occupancy and purchase and sale of property solely because of the color of the proposed occupant, constitutional?




The Supreme Court of the United States sought to consider this question: May the occupancy, and, necessarily, the purchase and sale of property of which occupancy is an incident, be inhibited by the States, or by one of its municipalities, solely because of the color of the proposed occupant of the premises? The Court held found that the 1914 city ordinance, which forbid colored persons to occupy houses in blocks where the greater number of houses are occupied by white persons, in practical effect prevented the sale of lots in such blocks to colored persons. Accordingly, the city ordinance was found to be unconstitutional. The Court held that the intent of the ordinance to prevent the alienation of property to a person of color was not a legitimate exercise of the police power of the state and was therefore an unconstitutional violation of the Fourteenth Amendment's prevention of state interference with property rights except by due process of law. The Court distinguished the ordinance from other segregation laws because it was not merely designed to regulate a business or the like; rather, it destroyed the right of the individual to acquire, enjoy, and dispose of his property and was thus void as being opposed to the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. It is well established that the State's police power, broad as it is, cannot justify the passage of a law or ordinance which runs counter to the limitations of the Federal Constitution. Ruling that the ordinance cannot stand, the Court reversed the court of appeals' judgment.


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