Palmer v. Thompson

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403 U.S. 217 (1971), argued 14 Dec. 1970, decided 14 June 1971 by vote of 5 to 4; Black for the Court, Burger concurring, Douglas, White, Marshall, and Brennan in dissent. African-American citizens of Jackson, Mississippi, claimed that the city engaged in unlawful racial discrimination in violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment when it closed public swimming pools rather than operating them on an integrated basis. The swimming pools were closed when lower courts invalidated racial segregation rules. The city contended that it was closing the pools to preserve public peace and because the pools could not be operated economically on an integrated basis, but black citizens challenged the action as unlawful discrimination on the theory that the decision to close the pools was based on discriminatory intentions, despite the publicly stated reasons. The Supreme Court turned aside the claim, largely on the ground that a legislative act does not violate the Equal Protection Clause simply because the act is adopted by government officials with discriminatory aims, at least when the officials put forth a valid, plausible reason for their actions.

The Palmer ruling is significant as an expression of the Court's strong unwillingness at the time to look beyond the surface of a seemingly neutral government act to search for discriminatory intent. Subsequent rulings have diminished the impact of Palmer by placing greater emphasis on discriminatory intent in determining equal protection violations. The decision remains important, however, as an indicator of the Court's general reluctance to examine the motives behind legislative acts.

Eric T. Freyfogle

Subjects: Law.

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