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Buchanan v. Warley (1917)

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In Buchanan v. Warley the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a Louisville, Kentucky ordinance that segregated housing by race in that city.

The case began with an unusual twist. In 1915 Charles H. Buchanan, a white home seller, brought a lawsuit against William Warley, an African-American buyer, to compel him to complete the purchase of a lot dedicated to the construction of a residence. In his defense against the lawsuit, Warley claimed that Louisville’s recently enacted ordinance, which barred African Americans from moving into mostly white neighborhoods, prevented him from completing the sale. The lawsuit eventually reached the State Court of Appeals for Kentucky, which held the Louisville ordinance valid and thus set up the appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Supporters of residential segregation argued that since whites were prohibited from moving into existing black majority neighborhoods, and blacks were prohibited from moving into existing white majority neighborhoods, the ordinance was race neutral in its application, by imposing bilateral and reciprocal obligations to both races.

However, in his lawsuit Buchanan attacked the ordinance as a violation of the Fourteenth Amendment. His attorneys also argued that the U.S. Civil Rights Act of 1866 stated that “All citizens … shall have the same right … as is enjoyed by white citizens to … purchase, lease, sell, hold, and convey real and personal property.”

The Supreme Court accepted Buchanan’s argument and invalidated the Louisville ordinance as violating the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution. In finding for Buchanan, the Court avoided conflict with the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson ruling and subsequent decisions which established the “separate but equal” doctrine by noting that “in none of them was [the complainant] denied the right to use, control or dispose of his property.”

Ultimately, the Court couched its decision in the provisions of the Fourteenth Amendment and cited legislation which respected the rights of African Americans to “purchase property and enjoy and use the same without laws discriminating against them solely on account of color.” It added that the Louisville ordinance “was not a legitimate exercise of the police power of the state ... and [was] in direct violation of the fundamental law … preventing state interference with property rights except by due process of law…”

The effect of Buchanan remains debatable. While the decision stopped Southern and Border State cities from passing similar housing ordinances segregating neighborhoods by race, it did not address the question of private action achieving the same result through racially restrictive covenants. As a consequence, segregated housing patterns emerged throughout the nation and continued to be legally enforceable until 1952. The racially based housing patterns established by then would continue long after the covenants were removed.

Buchanan v. Warley, 245 U.S. 60 (1917); David Bernstein and Ilya Somin, “Judicial Power and Civil Rights Reconsidered,” George Mason University School of Law Working Paper Series, Paper 9, 2004.


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