Belle Terre v. Boraas

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416 U.S. 1 (1974), argued 19–20 Feb. 1974, decided 1 Apr. 1974 by vote of 7 to 2; Douglas for the Court, Brennan and Marshall in dissent. Appellees owned a house in the small Long Island village of Belle Terre, New York. They leased it to six unrelated college students and were subsequently cited for violating a zoning ordinance that limited occupancy in one-family dwellings to traditional family units or to groups of not more than two unrelated people. Excluded from the ordinance were lodging, boarding, fraternity, and multiple-dwelling houses.

The owners of the house plus three of the tenants brought suit challenging the ordinance. Among their claims was the contention that the ordinance violated their constitutional right of privacy. The Court rejected that argument and upheld the ordinance, saying that it bore a rational relationship to a permissible state objective. “A quiet place where yards are wide, people few, and motor vehicles restricted are legitimate guidelines in a land-use project addressed to family needs,” Justice William O. Douglas wrote. “The police power is not confined to elimination of filth, stench, and unhealthy places” (p. 9).

Justice Thurgood Marshall dissented on the grounds that the ordinance unnecessarily burdened appellees’ First Amendment freedom of association and their constitutional right to privacy. Marshall argued that because of that infringement of fundamental rights, a mere rational basis test was not enough to sustain the ordinance. Rather, he argued that the ordinance could “withstand constitutional scrutiny only upon a clear showing that the burden imposed is necessary to protect a compelling and substantial governmental interest” (p. 18).

John Anthony Maltese

Subjects: Law.

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