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Law School Case Brief

Shelley v. Kraemer - 334 U.S. 1, 68 S. Ct. 836 (1948)

Rule:

The action inhibited by the first section of U.S. Const. amend. XIV is only such action as may fairly be said to be that of the States. The Fourteenth Amendment erects no shield against merely private conduct, however discriminatory or wrongful. 

Facts:

The cases involved suits in state courts to enforce restrictive covenants in deeds of residential property whereby the owners agreed that the property should not be used or occupied by any person except a Caucasian. The first case involved petitioners Shelley. On August 11, 1945, pursuant to a contract of sale, petitioners Shelley, who were a family of color, received from one Fitzgerald a warranty deed to the parcel in question for valuable consideration.  On October 9, 1945, respondents, Kraemer, et al., as owners of other nearby properties subject to the terms of the same restrictive covenant, brought suit in the Circuit Court of the city of St. Louis praying that petitioners Shelley be restrained from taking possession of the property and that judgment be entered divesting title out of petitioners Shelley and revesting title in the immediate grantor or in such other person as the court should direct. The trial court denied the requested relief on the ground that the restrictive agreement, upon which respondents based their action, had never become final and complete because it was the intention of the parties to that agreement that it was not to become effective until signed by all property owners in the district. The signatures of all the owners had never been obtained. The second case involved petitioners Ferguson. By deed dated November 30, 1944, the Fergusons, who were found by the trial court to be of color, acquired title to the property and thereupon entered into its occupancy. On January 30, 1945, respondents, as owners of property subject to the terms of the restrictive agreement, brought suit against petitioners in the Circuit Court of Wayne County. After a hearing, the court entered a decree directing petitioners to move from the property within ninety days. Petitioners were further enjoined and restrained from using or occupying the premises in the future. On appeal, the Supreme Court of Michigan affirmed, deciding adversely to petitioners' contentions that they had been denied rights protected by the Fourteenth Amendment.

Issue:

Were the petitioners denied the equal protection of the laws in the enforcement of the restrictive covenants?

Answer:

Yes.

Conclusion:

The Court held that, in granting judicial enforcement of the covenants, the states denied petitioners the equal protection of the laws. According to the Court, although there was no state statute regulating the matter, there was nonetheless state action within the meaning of U.S. Const. amend. XIV. The Court posited that the action of the state courts in imposing penalties or depriving parties of substantive rights without providing adequate notice and an opportunity to defend themselves was a denial of due process of law guaranteed by U.S. Const. amend. XIV. The Court concluded that because of petitioners' race or color, they were denied rights of ownership or occupancy enjoyed as a matter of course by other citizens of different race or color.

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