Burton v. Wilmington Parking Authority

365 U.S. 715 (1961)

Quick Summary

Marshall Burton (plaintiff) was denied service at Eagle Coffee Shoppe within a state-owned parking facility operated by Wilmington Parking Authority (defendant). The issue presented was whether this denial constituted state-sanctioned racial discrimination.

After lower courts ruled against Burton, he appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which reversed the decision, finding significant state involvement in the discriminatory practices, thus violating the Fourteenth Amendment.

Facts of the Case

Marshall Burton (plaintiff), an African American, sought to patronize the Eagle Coffee Shoppe, Inc., a restaurant situated within a parking facility owned by the Wilmington Parking Authority (WPA) (defendant), an agency of the State of Delaware. Burton was denied service based on his race.

The parking facility was constructed and operated with public funds, and the restaurant was a lessee of WPA. Burton contended that the refusal of service constituted state-sanctioned racial discrimination, in violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

The Supreme Court of Delaware ruled against Burton, finding that the restaurant acted in a purely private capacity and that its discriminatory actions were not state actions under the Fourteenth Amendment. The court also referenced a Delaware statute which suggested that restaurants were not compelled to serve all customers. Dissatisfied with this decision, Burton appealed to the United States Supreme Court.

Procedural Posture and History

  1. Marshall Burton was denied service at Eagle Coffee Shoppe because of his race.
  2. Burton filed suit against the Wilmington Parking Authority and Eagle Coffee Shoppe.
  3. The Supreme Court of Delaware held that Eagle Coffee Shoppe’s actions were private and not state action, and therefore did not violate the Fourteenth Amendment.
  4. Burton appealed to the United States Supreme Court.

I.R.A.C. Format


Whether a privately operated restaurant located within a public building owned by a state agency engages in state action when it discriminates on the basis of race.

Rule of Law

Private conduct abridging individual rights does not violate the Equal Protection Clause unless the State is significantly involved in the conduct. State action may be present when a State leases public property in such a way that results in discrimination, which must comply with the Fourteenth Amendment as if it were a binding covenant in the lease itself.

Reasoning and Analysis

The United States Supreme Court analyzed several factors to determine the extent of state involvement in Eagle Coffee Shoppe’s discriminatory practices. The court observed that the parking facility was publicly owned, dedicated to public use, and financed through public funds.

The commercial leasing space was not surplus property but an integral part of the parking facility’s operation, indicating a symbiotic relationship between lessor and lessee. The revenues from the restaurant’s lease were critical to the financial sustainability of the parking facility, which was a state project designed to serve public needs.

Despite Eagle Coffee Shoppe’s private management, the court found significant state involvement due to these interdependencies and the public nature of the facility. Thus, it concluded that Eagle Coffee Shoppe’s discriminatory practices amounted to state action in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment.


The United States Supreme Court reversed the decision of the Supreme Court of Delaware, ruling that Eagle Coffee Shoppe’s racially discriminatory practices constituted state action and violated Burton’s rights under the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The case was remanded for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

Dissenting Opinions

Justice Frankfurter dissented, suggesting that clarification from the Delaware Supreme Court regarding its interpretation of state law would be appropriate before addressing broader constitutional questions. Justice Harlan, joined by Justice Whittaker, also dissented, expressing that without a clear understanding of the Delaware Supreme Court’s application of its statute, it was premature to decide on the presence of state action.

Key Takeaways

  1. The involvement of a state agency in leasing property to a private entity can lead to state action if there is significant interdependence between them.
  2. Discriminatory practices by a private entity within a publicly funded facility can constitute state action in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment.
  3. The United States Supreme Court has authority to reverse state court decisions if they find constitutional rights have been violated.

Relevant FAQs of this case

What constitutes state action in the context of private entities using publicly funded property?

State action occurs when a private entity’s conduct is significantly intertwined with governmental policies or management, especially when utilizing publicly funded property. In such situations, private actions might be subjected to constitutional standards.

  • For example: A private school renting facilities from a public university may have to adhere to the same non-discrimination principles as the university due to its reliance on state resources and facilities.

How does a court determine whether a private act amounts to discrimination under the Equal Protection Clause?

A court will examine the involvement of the state in enabling or endorsing the discriminatory acts of a private party. Discrimination by a private party becomes actionable under the Equal Protection Clause if there is significant state involvement or if the state offers resources that facilitate the discrimination.

  • For example: If a state-funded hospital allows independently contracted doctors to deny treatment based on race, it could be seen as state-endorsed discrimination, subjecting both parties to scrutiny under the Fourteenth Amendment.

In which scenarios might leasing arrangements between private entities and government agencies be scrutinized for compliance with constitutional rights?

Leasing arrangements are scrutinized for constitutional compliance when the leased property serves a public function or is heavily funded by taxpayer money, thereby implicating the lessee in matters of public interest, such as adherence to civil rights law.

  • For example: A business operating on government land might be held accountable for disability access requirements under the Americans with Disabilities Act, as if it were a public institution itself.


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