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Burton v. Wilmington Parking Authority

Burton v. Wilmington Parking Authority, 365 U.S. 715 (1961), was a United States Supreme Court case that considered the application of the Equal Protection Clause on a private business that operates in close relationship to a government to the point that it becomes a "state actor".[1][2]

Burton v. Wilmington Parking Authority
Seal of the United States Supreme Court
Argued February 21, 1961
Decided April 17, 1961
Full case nameWilliam H. Burton, Appellant, v. Wilmington Parking Authority, et al.
Citations365 U.S. 715 (more)
81 S. Ct. 856; 6 L. Ed. 2d 45; 1961 U.S. LEXIS 1297
Case history
PriorDelaware Supreme Court
In view of all the circumstances of this case, including the facts that the restaurant was physically and financially an integral part of a public building, built and maintained with public funds, devoted to a public parking service, and owned and operated by an agency of the State for public purposes, the State was a joint participant in the operation of the restaurant, and its refusal to serve appellant violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.[1]
Court membership
Chief Justice
Earl Warren
Associate Justices
Hugo Black · Felix Frankfurter
William O. Douglas · Tom C. Clark
John M. Harlan II · William J. Brennan Jr.
Charles E. Whittaker · Potter Stewart
Case opinions
MajorityClark, joined by Warren, Black, Douglas, Brennan
DissentHarlan, joined by Whittaker
Laws applied
Fourteenth Amendment, the Delaware Code


The Wilmington Parking Authority (WPA) is a government agency established by the State of Delaware in 1951 to encourage parking access. Although a state agency, the WPA worked closely with the City of Wilmington who would issue the bonds for initial construction.[3] The first project of the new agency was to build the Midtown Parking Center, a garage on the downtown block in Wilmington between 8th, Orange, 9th and Shipley streets.[4] The city's economic analysis showed that the bonds could only be repaid if the parking income was augmented with rental income from a strip of storefronts built along 9th Street. The Eagle Coffee Shoppe, Inc., was one of the tenants and signed a 20-year lease in 1957.

Shortly after it opened, seven black local Chrysler workers were arrested for trespass when they staged a sit-in at the counter and refused to leave until they were served in an unsuccessful attempt to desegregate the restaurant. Louis L. Redding, a local civil rights attorney who helped litigate Brown v. Board of Education, became involved in the dispute.[5] Rather than appeal those arrests, he had City Councilman William H. Burton park at the garage and then go to the Eagle Coffee Shoppe where he was refused service explicitly because he was African American.[1]

Prior litigationEdit

Suit was then filed in 1958 on Mr. Burton's behalf against the parking authority and the coffeehouse claiming the discrimination was state sanctioned by virtue of the landlord and the close relationship between the business and state agency. The lawsuit sought to either force the Eagle Coffee Shoppe to integrate their dining room or to terminate their lease.[6]

The Delaware Court of Chancery ruled that the government lease to a discriminating company was a violation of Burton's civil rights. However, the Delaware Supreme Court overruled that decision found that Eagle Coffee Shoppe's refusal to serve black clientele was legal due to a state law, 24 Del.C. § 1501, that allowed restaurants to refuse services if a person was disturbing other customers.[7]

No keeper of an inn, tavern, hotel, or restaurant, or other place of public entertainment or refreshment of travelers, guests, or customers shall be obliged, by law, to furnish entertainment or refreshment to persons whose reception or entertainment by him would be offensive to the major part of his customers, and would injure his business.[8]

Redding then appealed to the federal courts on behalf of Burton.

Opinion of the CourtEdit

The majority opinion, written by Justice Tom Clark, looked closely at the specifics of the financing of the parking garage and the building plan's dependence on retail rental income to determine that the Eagle Coffee Shoppe was integral to the government purpose of building and financing a parking garage. Also, a close symbiosis was noted between retail businesses having nearby parking and a garage being close to shopping opportunities to the point where they were a "joint participant". Based on the close interplay between government and company, the court found that the exclusion of black customers was a violation even though no government agency was directly discriminating. "[T]he exclusion of appellant under the circumstances shown to be present here was discriminatory state action in violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment."[9]

Justice Potter Stewart concurred with the verdict but felt that, since no evidence had been submitted that Burton had bothered other customers, the Delaware law allowing restaurants to exclude customers was a pretense to allow racial discrimination and was therefore itself unconstitutional.[10] In dissent, Justice John Harlan II, joined by Charles Whittaker, found the State court ruling so ambiguous that they preferred to return the case to the lower court for clarification.[11] Justice Felix Frankfurter wrote a separate dissent that also called for returning the case to the state court.[12]

Legal consequencesEdit

The Burton case broadened the reach of the Equal Protection Clause to include not only direct government action, but also actions by private companies acting in close relationship to a government agency.[13] The impact of the ruling was later limited in Moose Lodge No. 107 v. Irvis to situations where the government support of the business was substantial before private discrimination could be considered a "state action".[14]

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ a b c Burton v. Wilmington Parking Authority, 365 U.S. 715 (1961).   This article incorporates public domain material from this U.S government document.
  2. ^ Rabe, Johan (2001). Equality, Affirmative Action and Justice. Hamburg. p. 69. ISBN 978-3831128327.
  3. ^ "About US". Wilmington Parking Authority. Retrieved 2 October 2013.
  4. ^ 39°44′42″N 75°32′59″W / 39.7450°N 75.5496°W / 39.7450; -75.5496Coordinates: 39°44′42″N 75°32′59″W / 39.7450°N 75.5496°W / 39.7450; -75.5496
  5. ^ Williams, Leonard L. (Summer 1998). "Louis L. Redding" (PDF). Delaware Lawyer. 16 (2). Retrieved 2 October 2013.
  6. ^ Lindenmuth, Janet (8 February 2012). "Local legal historic sites – Midtown Parking Center and Eagle Coffee Shoppe". Delaware Library Blog. Widener University. Retrieved 2 October 2013.
  7. ^ Burton v. Wilmington Parking Authority, Oyez Project, Chicago–Kent College of Law, (last visited June 23, 2018).
  8. ^ Burton, 365 U.S. at 717, n.1 (quoting 24 Del.C. § 1501).
  9. ^ Burton, 365 U.S. at 717.
  10. ^ Burton, 365 U.S. at 726-27 (Stewart, J., concurring).
  11. ^ Burton, 365 U.S. at 728-30 (Harlan, J., dissenting).
  12. ^ Burton, 365 U.S. at 727-28 (Frankfurter, J., dissenting).
  13. ^ Bittker, Boris I (1989). Collected Legal Essays. Littleton, Colorado. p. 202. ISBN 978-0837703589.
  14. ^ Moose Lodge No. 107 v. Irvis, 407 U.S. 163 (1972).

External linksEdit