Buchanan v. Warley

Michael J. Klarman’s From Jim Crow to Civil Rights (Oxford, 2004) examines the Supreme Court decision in Buchanan v. Warley (1917) and finds that the case, which is often interpreted as a great step forward for racial equality, is actually misunderstood and overvalued as an advancement of civil rights. Klarman states that in the Progressive Era, where “public sentiment could segregate as effectively as law,” the physical or legal changes that Buchanan produced were irrelevant compared to the importance of the sense of hope and encouragement created by the ruling (91).

The case found its way to the Supreme Court after William H. Buchanan, a white man, sued William Warley, a black man, for trying to get out of a contract regarding a house sale. Louisville, Kentucky had an ordinance that forbade blacks from living on a predominately white block (or whites from living on a black block). Buchanan sold Warley a house in a white block but Warley could not live on the block, so he did not complete the sale. When Buchanan sued him over his refusal, Warley cited the city ordinance as a viable and legal reason to opt out of the contract and not complete the sale. The Kentucky Court of Appeals eventually saw the case and rejected Buchanan’s argument that Louisville’s ordinance violated the 14th Amendment, particularly the Due Process clause. Upon higher appeal, the Supreme Court ruled that Louisville’s ordinance was unconstitutional and that it did violate the Due Process clause and its stated property rights. The court’s unanimous decision was a surprising one that failed to “convincingly distinguish precedent” in a time when “law review commentary, both before and after Buchanan, was so overwhelmingly supportive of residential segregation ordinances” (80). The Progressive Era saw few advancements for civil rights and while the court’s Buchanan decision was unique for its time, “it was not a significant departure with regard to race” (80). The case may have seemed a victory for blacks in America, but in fact the ruling was designed to protect (predominately white) people’s property rights and their ability to make a profit.

The Buchanan decision, Klarman argues, was not intentioned to improve life for African American’s and that its consequences were more important in the future development of civil rights. Klarman argues that Progressive Era civil rights cases like Buchanan v. Warley were more like “symbols of hope than effective bulwarks against the racial injustice” and that perhaps their most valuable contribution to the civil rights movement was “convincing potential participants that its goals [were] feasible” (93). This is where many legal scholars and historians begin to present views that clash with Klarman’s minimalist attitude. In David E. Bernstein and Ilya Somin‘s extensive review of Klarman’s book, they argue that while Klarman’s interpretation of the case and its significance is valuable and well-informed, he underestimates the “willingness and the ability of courts to make a difference” and the “importance of…law more generally”. Bernstein argues on his Supreme Court blog that the importance of the Buchanan case is often neglected and undevalued. Richard A. Epstein’s article on constitutional jurisprudence studies Buchanan v. Warley and finds it invaluable in understanding the Progressive Era and the interpretations and consequences of state’s police powers.

There is also surprisingly little written about directly the case itself, although there are some excellent reference sources for the time period. Alexander M. Bickel and Benno C. Schmidt Jr.’s History of the Supreme Court of the United States of America Volume IX: The Judiciary and Responsible Government (2007) provides analysis of the court’s actions. Comer Van Woodward’s The Strange Career of Jim Crow (2001) examines the civil rights movement and its evolution in the context of the Jim Crow era. The only books in the Dickinson College Library with useful information about the Buchanan case are James W. Loewen’s Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism (2005) and David E. Bernstein’s concise excerpt in Law & Politics: Volume 10, edited by James W. Ely Jr. and Bradley G. Bond.

 Buchanan v. Warley was heard in the Edward Douglass White court, and the decision was written by Justice William Rufus Day. Information about the White court can be found in Walter F. Pratt’s 1999 book, The Supreme Court under Edward Douglass White, 1910-1921. For a source with a more biographical attitude one can examine Robert Baker Highsaw’s 1981 book, Edward Douglas White: Defender of the Conservative Faith. Joseph E. Mclean’s William Rufus Day: Supreme Court Justice from Ohio (1946) is one of the only biographies of Justice Day in existence. There is little written about Justice Day and even less written about the apellant William Warley or the apellee William H. Buchanan.

The other justices on the White Court were Joseph McKenna, Oliver W. Holmes Jr., Willis Van Devanter, Mahlon Pitney, James C. McReynolds, Louis Brandeis, and John H. Clarke. Justice Holmes drafted a dissent but could not find enough support among his fellow justices to deliver it. There are several books about Holmes, the most recent of which is the comprehensive Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.: The Supreme Court and American Legal Thought (2006) by multiple authors. Melvin Urofsky published Louis D. Brandeis: A Life in 2009, a work that covers Brandeis’ life and legacy in immense detail. There is little recently written about Justices McKenna, Van Devanter, Pitney, McReynolds, or Clarke.




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