Shelley v. Kraemer

Shelley v. Kraemer

Argued January 15, 1948
Decided May 3, 1948
Full case name Shelley et ux. v. Kraemer et ux. McGhee et ux. v. Sipes et al.

334 U.S. 1 (more)

334 U.S. 1 (1948); 68 S. Ct. 836; 92 L. Ed. 1161; 3 A.L.R.2d 441
Prior history Judgment for defendants; reversed, 198 S.W.2d 679 (Mo. 1947); certiorari granted. Judgment for plaintiffs; affirmed 25 N.W.2d 638 (Mich. 614); certiorari granted.
The Fourteenth Amendment prohibits a state from enforcing restrictive covenants that would prohibit a person from owning or occupying property based on race or color.
Court membership
Case opinions
Majority Vinson, joined by Black, Frankfurter, Douglas, Murphy, Burton
Reed, Jackson, Rutledge took no part in the consideration or decision of the case.
Laws applied
U.S. Const. amend. XIV

Shelley v. Kraemer, 334 US 1 (1948) is a landmark[1] United States Supreme Court case which held that courts could not enforce racial covenants on real estate.


In 1945, an African-American family by the name of Shelley purchased a house in St. Louis, Missouri. At the time of purchase, they were unaware that a restrictive covenant had been in place on the property since 1911. The restrictive covenant prevented "people of the Negro or Mongolian Race" from occupying the property. Louis Kraemer, who lived ten blocks away, sued to prevent the Shelleys from gaining possession of the property. The Supreme Court of Missouri held that the covenant was enforceable against the purchasers because the covenant was a purely private agreement between the original parties thereto. As such, it "ran with the land" and was enforceable against subsequent owners. Moreover, since it ran in favor of an estate rather than merely a person, it could be enforced against a third party. A materially similar scenario occurred in the companion case McGhee v. Sipes from Detroit, Michigan, where the McGhees purchased land that was subject to a similar restrictive covenant. The Supreme Court consolidated both cases for oral arguments and considered two questions: are racially based restrictive covenants legal under the Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution, and can they be enforced by a court of law?


The United States Supreme Court held "the restrictive racially-based restrictive covenants are not, on their face, invalid under the Fourteenth Amendment." However, while private parties may voluntarily abide by the terms of such a restrictive covenant, they may not seek judicial enforcement of such a covenant because enforcement by the courts would constitute state action. Since such state action would necessarily be discriminatory, the enforcement of a racially based restrictive covenant in a state court would violate the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The court rejected the argument that since state courts would enforce a restrictive covenant against white people, judicial enforcement of restrictive covenants would not violate the Equal Protection Clause. The court noted that the Fourteenth Amendment guarantees individual rights, and that equal protection of the law is not achieved through the imposition of inequalities.

Vinson CJ said the following.

We have no doubt that there has been state action in these cases in the full and complete sense of the phrase. The undisputed facts disclose that petitioners were willing purchasers of properties upon which they desired to establish homes. The owners of the properties were willing sellers, and contracts of sale were accordingly consummated. It is clear that, but for the active intervention of the state courts, supported by the full panoply of state power, petitioners would have been free to occupy the properties in question without restraint.

These are not cases, as has been suggested, in which the States have merely abstained from action, leaving private individuals free to impose such discriminations as they see fit. Rather, these are cases in which the States have made available to such individuals the full coercive power of government to deny to petitioners, on the grounds of race or color, the enjoyment of property rights in premises which petitioners are willing and financially able to acquire and which the grantors are willing to sell. The difference between judicial enforcement and nonenforcement of the restrictive covenants is the difference to petitioners between being denied rights of property available to other members of the community and being accorded full enjoyment of those rights on an equal footing.


The attorneys who argued the case for the McGhees were Thurgood Marshall and Loren Miller. The United States Solicitor General, Philip Perlman, who argued in this case that the restrictive covenants were unconstitutional, had previously in 1925 as the city solicitor of Baltimore acted to support the city government's segregation efforts.[2]

Hurd v. Hodge and Urciolo v. Hodge[3] were companion cases from the District of Columbia; the Equal Protection Clause does not explicitly apply to United States territory which is not inside a state, but the Court found that both the Civil Rights Act of 1866, and treating persons in the District like those in the States, forbade restrictive covenants.

The Solicitor General's brief

The Solicitor General's brief filed on behalf of the United States government was written by four Jewish lawyers: Philip Elman, Oscar H. Davis, Hilbert P. Zarky, and Stanley M. Silverberg. However, the Solicitor General’s office chose to omit their names from the brief. Deputy Solicitor General Arnold Raum (who was also Jewish) stated that it was "bad enough that [Solicitor General Philip] Perlman’s name has to be there, to have one Jew’s name on it, but you have also put four more Jewish names on. That makes it look as if a bunch of Jewish lawyers in the Department of Justice put this out."[4]

See also


  1. "Shelley House". We Shall Overcome: Historic Places of the Civil Rights Movement. National Park Service. Retrieved June 11, 2013.
  2. Mitchell, Juanita Jackson (2004). "Meade v. Dennistone: The NAACP's Test Case to "... Sue Jim Crow Out of Maryland with the Fourteenth Amendment". Maryland Law Review. Baltimore, Maryland: University of Maryland School of Law. 63: 807.
  3. 334 U.S. 24
  4. Elman, Philip; Silber, Norman (1987). "The Solicitor General's Office, Justice Frankfurter, and Civil Rights Litigation, 1946–1960: An Oral History". Harvard Law Review. 100 (4): 817–852 [p. 819]. doi:10.2307/1341096. JSTOR 1341096. As quoted in Waxman, Seth. "Twins at Birth: Civil Rights and the Role of the Solicitor General". Indiana Law Journal. 75: 1297, 1306 n. 53.


External links

Works related to Shelley v. Kraemer at Wikisource

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