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decided: June 15, 1953.



Vinson, Warren, Black, Frankfurter, Douglas, Burton, Clark, Minton; Reed and Jackson took no part in the consideration or decision of this case.

Author: Minton

[ 346 U.S. Page 251]

 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?

Petitioners*fn1 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

[ 346 U.S. 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 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 Appeal 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 (Dist. Col.). 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 Okla. 366, 237 P. 2d 1017.

[ 346 U.S. Page 253]

     The trial court in the case here held that a party to a covenant restricting use and occupancy*fn2 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 violative 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

[ 346 U.S. 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 out 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

[ 346 U.S. Page 255]

     restrictive covenant, rely on the invasion of the rights of others in her defense to this action?

Ordinarily, one may not claim standing in this Court to vindicate the constitutional rights of some third party. Reference to this rule is made in varied situations. See Joint Anti-Fascist Refugee Comm. v. McGrath, 341 U.S. 123, 149-154 (concurring opinion). The requirement of standing is often used to describe the constitutional limitation on the jurisdiction of this Court to "cases" and "controversies." See Coleman v. Miller, 307 U.S. 433, 464 (concurring opinion). Apart from the jurisdictional requirement, this Court has developed a complementary rule of self-restraint for its own governance (not always clearly distinguished from the constitutional limitation) which ordinarily precludes a person from challenging the constitutionality of state action by invoking the rights of others. See Ashwander v. Tennessee Valley Authority, 297 U.S. 288, 346-348 (concurring opinion). The ...

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