392 U.S. 409 (1968), argued 1–2 Apr. 1968, decided 17 June 1968 by vote of 7 to 2; Stewart for the Court, Harlan and White in dissent. This case established Congress's power under the Thirteenth Amendment to legislate against private racial discrimination. It thus limited the Civil Rights Cases (1883) holding that Congress lacked the power to reach private racial discrimination and became an important influence on the modern era of civil rights legislation.
Jones alleged that private defendants refused to sell him a home because he was black. He brought an action under a surviving remnant of the Civil Rights Act of 1866 (now Title 42, section 1982 of the U.S. Code) that grants all citizens the same right to purchase property. Section 1982 plainly invalidated nineteenth-century southern states’ black codes limiting blacks’ power to own or lease property. The question in Jones was whether the statute also reached private individual discriminatory acts. Justice Potter Stewart's opinion for the Court provided a questionable analysis of section 1982's text and legislative history and held that section 1982 reaches private behavior. Justice John M. Harlan's dissent noted that the Court's interpretation of section 1982 made that statute a broad fair housing law, announced by the Court only months after Congress enacted the Civil Rights Act of 1968, which contained a more detailed fair housing law.
Congress's power to enact laws prohibiting private racial discrimination under the Fourteenth Amendment is unclear, as suggested by the confusing array of opinions in United States v. Guest (1966). Jones avoided addressing the Fourteenth Amendment power question by finding congressional power under the Thirteenth Amendment. It thus supplied a powerful new basis for federal race discrimination legislation. In the Civil Rights Cases, the Court had indicated that, under the Thirteenth Amendment, Congress may outlaw not only slavery itself but all badges or incidents of slavery as well. But it narrowly construed what those badges or incidents of slavery were and Congress's power to define them. It invalidated the Civil Rights Act of 1875, which prohibited discrimination in public accommodations, stating, “It would be running the slavery argument into the ground” (p. 24) to apply it to all private discriminatory acts in the area of public accommodations. In Jones, the Court more generously interpreted Congress's power to assess what social conditions might be badges or incidents of slavery and sustained applying section 1982 to private behavior.
Jones established the foundation for the later holding in Runyon v. McCrary (1976) that Title 42, section 1981 of the U.S. Code, a companion provision to section 1982, reaches private discrimination in contracts. Together, Jones and Runyon establish sections 1981 and 1982 as broad federal antidiscrimination provisions covering most contractual and property relationships. Jones's questionable foundations reemerged in Runyon, when Justices White, Rehnquist, and Stevens voiced doubts about its correctness, and again thirteen years later in Patterson v. McLean Credit Union (1989). By the time Patterson arose, President Ronald Reagan's appointees to the Court had changed its receptivity to civil rights litigation. In Patterson, the Court took the unusual step of ordering the parties, on its own motion, to reargue the case and to address a question neither party had raised—whether Runyon had been correctly decided. Following reargument, the Court's Patterson opinion left Runyon technically intact. But Patterson severely limited Runyon and section 1981 by holding that it protects only the initial decision to contract and not post-contractual behavior. The limiting interpretation probably is as attributable to lingering discontent with Jones as it is to doubts about Runyon itself.