Shelley v. Kraemer

Following is the case brief for Shelley v. Kraemer, 344 U.S. 1 (1948).

Case Summary of Shelley v. Kraemer:

  • In two companion cases, two African-American families were denied the use of land that they purchased due to race-based restrictive covenants placed on those properties.
  • The State Supreme Courts of Missouri and Michigan allowed the deprivation of the property based on the restrictive covenants.
  • The U.S. Supreme Court reversed those decisions.  The Court held that while private restrictive covenant agreements do not fall under the Constitution’s protection, state enforcement of such covenants violates the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause.

Shelley v. Kraemer Case Brief

Statement of the Facts:

The Shelley family, an African-American family, purchased a home in St. Louis, Missouri in 1945. Unknown to the Shelley family, a covenant from 1911 had been placed on the property restricting African-Americans from owning the property.  Kraemer, a person who lived several blocks away, sued to stop the Shelley family from occupying the property.  The trial court denied relief because the covenant was not signed by all of the relevant neighbors.  The Supreme Court of Missouri reversed the trial court’s decision.  It held that the covenant was enforceable against the Shelleys because it was purely a private agreement that attached to the land.

In a companion case, McGhee v. Sipes, the McGhees bought land that had a restrictive covenant similar to the Shelley case.  The lower court ordered the McGhees to leave the land based on the restrictive covenant.  The Michigan Supreme Court affirmed the decision, finding that the Fourteenth Amendment did not protect the McGhees.

Procedural History:

Kraemer sued in state court to enjoin the Shelley family from taking possession of property based on a race-based restrictive covenant.  The trial court denied relief.  The Supreme Court of Missouri reversed, allowing the injunction.

In the companion case, Sipes sued in state court to remove the McGhee family from property also based on a race-based restrictive covenant.  The trial court ordered the removal.  The Supreme Court of Michigan affirmed.

The U.S. Supreme Court consolidated the cases and granted certiorari.

Issue and Holding:

Does a court’s enforcement of a race-based restrictive covenant violate the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause?  Yes.

Judgment:

The judgments of the Missouri and Michigan Supreme Courts are reversed.

Rule of Law or Legal Principle Applied:

A court cannot enforce a race-based restrictive covenant because such state action would violate the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

Reasoning:

A private agreement to restrict a certain race from occupying land does not violate the Fourteenth Amendment.  However, a state court enforcing such an agreement would constitute “state action” implicating the Fourteenth Amendment.  Allowing the state to marshal its considerable power to deny people, like the Shelley family, the equal protection of the laws violates the Fourteenth Amendment.  Therefore, a court could not enforce a discriminatory restrictive covenant because it would be in violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

The Court emphasized that individual rights are guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment.  Accordingly, state courts cannot be used in a way that would result in further inequalities.

Significance:

One commentator sees Shelley v. Kraemer as the first case in American legal history to begin to undo legally sanctioned housing discrimination in the country.  Indeed, the Shelley decision took away the ability for people to use the court system to perpetuate a powerful and cruel form of racial discrimination in housing.  Indicative of how pervasive such racial covenants were at the time, three justices of the Court were forced to recuse themselves from the case when they learned that their own homes had race-based restrictive covenants on them.

Student Resources:

https://www.oyez.org/cases/1940-1955/334us1

https://supreme.justia.com/cases/federal/us/334/1/case.html

https://constitutioncenter.org/blog/shelley-v-kraemer-legal-reform-for-americas-neighborhoods

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