Burton v. Wilmington Parking Authority

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365 U.S. 715 (1961), argued 21, 23 Feb. 1961, decided 17 Apr. 1961 by vote of 6 to 3; Clark for the Court; Harlan, Frankfurter, and Whittaker in dissent. In this case the Court addressed the vexing if not logically inscrutable problem, judged pivotal to the success of the civil rights movement at the time, of defining the meaning of state action under the Fourteenth Amendment. The city built a public parking garage within which it leased space to a restaurant. A Delaware statute provided that a restaurant was not obliged to serve persons whose reception would be offensive to the major part of its customers. An African-American who was refused service claimed discrimination in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment. The Supreme Court held, 6 to 3, that a sufficient degree of state action was present to constitute a denial of the equal protection of the laws. Justice Tom C. Clark for the majority emphasized that the state owned and operated the building in which the incident occurred and hence had a responsibility to prevent it. The state's inaction under the circumstances made it a party to the discrimination, rendering it unlawful. The decision did little to clarify the state action problem. Justice Clark limited the scope and precedential value of the decision in stating that “to fashion and apply a precise formula for recognition of state responsibility under the Equal Protection Clause is an ‘impossible task,’” and in observing: “Only by sifting facts and weighing circumstances can the nonobvious involvement of the State in private conduct be attributed its true significance” (p. 722). The dissenters urged that the case be remanded to the state court for clarification of its decision upholding the restaurant in relation to the state law under which the restaurant acted.

Herman Belz

Subjects: Law.

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