346 U.S. 249 (1953), 517, Barrows v. Jackson

Docket Nº:No. 517
Citation:346 U.S. 249, 73 S.Ct. 1031, 97 L.Ed. 1586
Party Name:Barrows v. Jackson
Case Date:June 15, 1953
Court:United States Supreme Court

Page 249

346 U.S. 249 (1953)

73 S.Ct. 1031, 97 L.Ed. 1586




No. 517

United States Supreme Court

June 15, 1953

Argued April 28-29, 1953




The enforcement of a covenant forbidding use and occupancy of real estate by non-Caucasians, by an action at law in a state court to recover damages from a co-covenantor for a breach of the covenant, is barred by the Fourteenth Amendment of the Federal Constitution. Pp. 251-260.

(a) The action of a state court in thus sanctioning a racial restrictive covenant would constitute state action within the prohibition of the Fourteenth Amendment. P. 254.

(b) State action in allowing damages for breach of a covenant not to permit non-Caucasians to use and occupy their property would deprive such non-Caucasians, unidentified but identifiable, of equal protection of the laws in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment. P. 254.

(c) The principle that a person cannot challenge the constitutionality of a statute unless he shows that he himself is injured by its operation has no application to the instant case, in which respondent has been sued for damages totaling $11,600, and in which a judgment against respondent would constitute a direct pocketbook injury to her. Pp. 254-256.

(d) Under the peculiar circumstances of this case, the reasons which underlie the rule denying standing to raise another's constitutional rights, which is only a rule of practice, are outweighed by the need to protect the fundamental rights which would be denied by permitting the damages action to be maintained. P. 257.

(e) The principle that the right to equal protection of the laws is a "personal" right, guaranteed to the individual, rather than to groups or classes, is not here violated, since it is not non-Caucasians as a group whose rights are asserted by the defendant in the damages action, but the rights of particular non-Caucasian would-be users of restricted land. Pp. 259-260.

(f) The provision of Art. I, §10 of the Federal Constitution, that "No State shall . . . pass any . . . Law impairing the Obligation of Contracts," is not violated by the refusal of a state court

Page 250

to enforce a racial restrictive covenant, since that provision is directed against legislative action only, not against the judgments of courts. P. 260.

(g) The plaintiffs in an action for damages for breach of a racial restrictive covenant are not denied due process and equal protection of the laws by the state court's refusal to enforce the covenant, since the Constitution confers upon no individual the right to demand action by the State which would result in the denial of equal protection of the laws to others. P. 260.

112 Cal.App. 2d 534, 247 P.2d 99, affirmed.

Petitioners sued respondent in a California state court to recover damages for an alleged breach of a racial restrictive covenant. The trial court sustained a demurrer to the complaint. The district Court of Appeal affirmed. 112 Cal.App.2d 534, 247 P.2d 99. The State Supreme Court denied a hearing. This Court granted certiorari. 345 U.S. 902. Affirmed, p. 260.

Page 251

MINTON, J., lead opinion

MR. JUSTICE MINTON delivered the opinion of the Court.

This Court held in Shelley v. Kraemer, 334 U.S. 1, that racial restrictive covenants could not be enforced in equity against Negro purchasers because such enforcement would constitute state action denying equal protection of the laws to the Negroes, in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment to the Federal Constitution. The question we now have is: can such a restrictive covenant be enforced at law by a suit for damages against a co-covenantor who allegedly broke the covenant?

Petitioners1 sued respondent at law for damages for breach of a restrictive covenant the parties entered into as owners of residential real estate in the same neighborhood in Los Angeles, California. The petitioners' complaint alleged in part:

That by the terms of said Agreement each of the signers promised and agreed in writing and bound himself, his heirs, executors, administrators, successors, and assigns, by a continuing covenant that no part of his said real property, described therein, should ever at any time be used or occupied by any person or persons not wholly of the white or Caucasian race, and also agreed and promised in writing that this restriction should be incorporated in all papers and transfers of lots or parcels of land hereinabove referred to; provided, however, that said restrictions should not prevent the employment by

Page 252

the owners or tenants of said real property of domestic servants or other employees who are not wholly of the white or Caucasian race; provided, further, however, that such employees shall be permitted to occupy said real property only when actively [73 S.Ct. 1033] engaged in such employment. That said Agreement was agreed to be a covenant running with the land. That each provision in said Agreement was for the benefit for all the lots therein described.

The complaint further alleged that respondent broke the covenant in two respects: (1) by conveying her real estate without incorporating in the deed the restriction contained in the covenant; and (2) by permitting non-Caucasians to move in and occupy the premises. The trial court sustained a demurrer to the complaint, the District Court of Appeals for the Second Appellate District affirmed, 112 Cal.App.2d 534, 247 P.2d 99, and the Supreme Court of California denied hearing. We granted certiorari, 345 U.S. 902, because of the importance of the constitutional question involved and to consider the conflict which has arisen in the decisions of the state courts since our ruling in the Shelley case, supra. Like the California court in the instant case, the Supreme Court of Michigan sustained the dismissal of a claim for damages for breach of a racial restrictive covenant, Phillips v. Naff, 332 Mich. 389, 52 N.W.2d 158. See also Roberts v. Curtis, 93 F.Supp. 604. The Supreme Court of Missouri reached a contrary result, Weiss v. Leaon, 359 Mo. 1054, 225 S.W.2d 127, while the Supreme Court of Oklahoma has held that a claim for damages may be maintained against a white seller, an intermediate straw man, and a non-Caucasian purchaser for a conspiracy to violate the covenant, Correll v. Earley, 205 Okl. 366, 237 P.2d 1017.

Page 253

The trial court in the case here held a party to a covenant restricting use and occupancy2 of real estate to Caucasians could not maintain a suit at law against a co-covenantor for breach of the covenant because of our ruling in Shelley, supra. In Shelley, this Court held that the action of the lower courts in granting equitable relief in the enforcement of such covenants constituted state action denying to Negroes, against whom the covenant was sought to be enforced, equal protection of the laws in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment. This Court said:

We conclude, therefore, that the restrictive agreements, standing alone, cannot be regarded as a violation of any rights guaranteed to petitioners by the Fourteenth Amendment. So long as the purposes of those agreements are effectuated by voluntary adherence to their terms, it would appear clear that there has been no action by the State, and the provisions of the Amendment have not been violated. . . .

334 U.S. 1, 13.

That is to say, the law applicable in that case did not make the covenant itself invalid, no one would be punished for making it, and no one's constitutional rights were violated by the covenantor's voluntary adherence thereto. Such voluntary adherence would constitute individual action only. When, however, the parties cease to rely upon voluntary action to carry out the covenant and the State is asked to step in and give its sanction to the enforcement of the covenant, the first question

Page 254

that arises is whether a court's awarding damages constitutes state action under the Fourteenth Amendment. To compel respondent to respond in damages would be for the State to punish her for her failure to perform her covenant to continue to discriminate against non-Caucasians in the use of her property. The result of that sanction by the State would be to encourage the use of restrictive covenants. To that extent, the State would act to put its sanction behind the covenants. If the State may thus punish respondent for her failure to carry [73 S.Ct. 1034] our her covenant, she is coerced to continue to use her property in a discriminatory manner, which, in essence, is the purpose of the covenant. Thus, it becomes not respondent's voluntary choice, but the State's choice that she observe her covenant or suffer damages. The action of a state court at law to sanction the validity of the restrictive covenant here involved would constitute state action as surely as it was state action to enforce such covenants in equity, as in Shelley, supra.

The next question to emerge is whether the state action in allowing damages deprives anyone of rights protected by the Constitution. If a state court awards damages for breach of a restrictive covenant, a prospective seller of restricted land will either refuse to sell to non-Caucasians or else will require non-Caucasians to pay a higher price to meet the damages which the seller may incur. Solely because of their race, non-Caucasians will be unable to purchase, own, and enjoy property on the same terms as Caucasians. Denial of this right by state action deprives such non-Caucasians, unidentified but identifiable, of equal protection of the laws in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment. See Shelley, supra.

But unlike Shelley, supra, no non-Caucasian is before the Court claiming to have been denied his constitutional rights. May respondent, whom petitioners seek to coerce by an action to pay damages for her failure to honor her

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restrictive covenant,...

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