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Corrigan v. Buckley

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Significance: The Supreme Court upheld a restrictive covenant in the District of Columbia, a ruling that would stand until 1948, more than twenty years later.


Restrictive covenants blocked the sale of properties owned by whites to members of minority groups and were designed to maintain segregation in an area. When a white owner of property controlled by a restrictive covenant subsequently contracted to sell it to an African American, other white owners asked the District of Columbia federal court to enforce the covenant and block the sale. The district court upheld the covenant. The Supreme Court unanimously affirmed the lower court's decision. Justice Edward T. Sanford, writing the opinion for the Court, disposed of various constitutional provisions. He noted that the Fifth Amendment was limited to the federal government (not individuals), that the Thirteenth Amendment protected African Americans only in their personal liberty (not contracts), and that the Fourteenth Amendment applied to states (not the District of Columbia). The Court further held that the 1866 Civil Rights Act granted all people the legal authority to contract but did not prohibit or invalidate contracts between private individuals such as restrictive covenants. Sanford also said that judicial enforcement of covenants was not the same as state action denying people their Fourteenth Amendment rights. This decision closed the door to racially integrated housing that had been partially opened by Buchanan v. Warley (1917). It lasted more than two decades until Shelley v. Kraemer (1948) upheld such covenants but banned judicial enforcement as a form of state action prohibited by the Fourteenth Amendment.