Shelley v. Kraemer (1948) is a U.S. Supreme Court case that held that restrictive covenants in real property deeds which prohibited the sale of property to non-Caucasians unconstitutionally violate the equal protection provision of the Fourteenth Amendment. Find the full opinion here.
In 1911, a majority of property owners in a neighborhood signed an agreement which created a condition precedent to the sale of property—i.e. a restrictive covenant—that provided that “no part of said property or any portion thereof shall be, for said term of Fifty-years, occupied by any person not of the Caucasian race. . .” In 1945, an African American family, the Shelleys, purchased one of the properties without knowledge of the restrictive covenant. The Kraemers, along with other white neighbors, sought to enforce the covenant and enjoin the Shelleys from taking possession of the property because of the restrictive covenant. The Missouri Supreme Court upheld the racially restrictive covenant and enjoined the Shelleys from taking ownership. The U.S. Supreme Court granted certiorari on the Shelleys’ case to determine whether enforcement of racially restrictive covenants violated the Fourteenth Amendment, which stated, in part, that “no state. . . [shall] deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”
The Supreme Court, in an opinion by Chief Justice Vinson, held that enforcement of such covenants violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. While obvious that, had a state created a law barring property ownership solely on the basis of race, that law would violate the Fourteenth Amendment, the issue here was that private owners created a covenant and the Fourteenth Amendment applies to state action. However, the Court reasoned that the Fourteenth Amendment applies to judicial enforcement of such covenants, as that is state action. Thus, the Court concluded that the state is taking action, through judicial enforcement of the racially restrictive covenants, and by doing so denies to African Americans solely on the basis of their race their constitutionally protected right to purchase property.
The Court’s ruling in Shelley v. Kraemer had a significant impact on expanding African American rights in a time when they still suffered under Jim Crow laws. As the D.C. Policy Center explains, in the early 20th century, whites across the country created racially restrictive covenants to prevent blacks from living in traditionally white neighbors, thus segregating white and black neighborhoods. Shelley v. Kraemer not only eliminated this common method of promoting racial residential segregation, but also provided ammunition for future Supreme Court Justices looking to enforce the Equal Protection Clause. For example, in Edmonson v. Leesville Concrete Co., Justice Kennedy, in citing Shelley v. Kraemer alone, emphasized that “the injury caused by the discrimination is made more severe because the government permits it to occur within the courthouse itself.” Thus, while Shelley did not produce the immediate and sweeping change in jurisprudence the other important civil rights cases may have brought, such as Brown v. Board of Education, it was nevertheless an important precedent that courts could use in strengthening the Equal Protection Clause.
[Last updated in April of 2021 by the Wex Definitions Team]