James v. Valtierra (1971)

By requiring approval by local referendum for the building of public low-rent housing projects, the California state constitution does not single out advocates for low-rent public housing and therefore does not deny equal protection.

Citation: 402 U.S. 137 (1971)
Date decided: Apr 26, 1971
Longer case name: Ronald JAMES et al., Appellants, v. Anita VALTIERRA et al., Appellees. Virginia C. SHAFFER, Appellant, v. Anita VALTIERRA et al., Appellees.
Law type: Civil
Jurisdiction level:Federal
State of origin: California
Topic(s):Equal protection and Public housing
Lists:Important cases
Attorneys:Archibald Cox argued the cause for appellees in both cases. On the brief were Lois P. Sheinfeld and Anthony G. Amsterdam. Warren Christopher and Donald M. Wessling filed a brief for appellee Housing Authority of the city of San Jose in both cases.
Others involved:Briefs of amici curiae urging affirmance in both cases were filed by Solicitor General Griswold, Assistant Attorney General Leonard, and Lawrence G. Wallace for the United States, and by Louis J. Lefkowitz, Attorney General, pro se, Samuel A. Hirshowitz, First Assistant Attorney General, and George D. Zuckerman, Dominick J. Tuminaro, and Lloyd G. Milliken, Assistant Attorneys General, for the Attorney General of the State of New York.
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Case Importance

Aaron Cavin, “A Right to Housing in the Suburbs: James v. Valtierra and the Campaign against Economic Discrimination”, Journal of Urban History, 2017, https://doi.org/10.1177%2F0096144217712928: “Abstract: In the landmark 1971 case of James v. Valtierra, the Supreme Court ruled that municipalities could block housing for the poor, bolstering a trend toward exclusionary zoning and economic segregation in suburban America. Scholarship on this trend has focused on the racial impacts of putatively nonracial policies, echoing activists at the time who saw economic exclusion as a disguised means of forestalling racial desegregation. This article, however, argues that a focus on racial desegregation misinterprets the campaign of affordable housing in the suburbs and obscures key claims made by affordable housing activists. It examines the history of James v. Valtierra, showing that the plaintiffs were a racially diverse group of women who already lived in the suburbs; they sought not desegregation but better housing conditions for single mothers and their families. The article suggests the importance of analyzing suburban diversity, gender, and economic discrimination in struggles for affordable housing.”

Case Details

(The syllabus is not part of the opinion, but is a summary prepared by the court reporter as a convenience.)



Appellees, who are eligible for low-cost public housing, challenged the requirement of Art. XXXIV of the California Constitution that no low-rent housing project be developed, constructed, or acquired by any state public body without the approval of a majority of those voting at a community election, as violative of the Supremacy, Privileges and Immunities, and Equal Protection Clauses of the United States Constitution. A three-judge District Court enjoined the enforcement of the referendum provision on the ground that it denied appellees equal protection of the laws, relying chiefly on Hunter v. Erickson, 393 U. S. 385.

Held: The California procedure for mandatory referendums, which is not limited to proposals involving low-cost public housing, ensures democratic decisionmaking, and does not violate the Equal Protection Clause. Hunter v. Erickson, supra, distinguished. Pp. 404 U. S. 140-143.

313 F. Supp. 1, reversed and remanded.

BLACK, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BURGER, C.J., and HARLAN, STEWART, and WHITE, JJ., joined. MARSHALL, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which BRENNAN and BLACKMUN, JJ., joined, post, p. 404 U. S. 143. DOUGLAS, J., took no part in the consideration or decision of the cases.

From the dissent

Mr. Justice MARSHALL, whom Mr. Justice BRENNAN and Mr. Justice BLACKMUN join, dissenting.

By its very terms, the mandatory prior referendum provision of Art. XXXIV applies solely to

‘any development composed of urban or rural dwellings, apartments or other living accommodations for persons of low income, financed in whole or in part by the Federal Government or a state public body or to which the Federal Government or a state public body extends assistance by supplying all or part of the labor, by guaranteeing the payment of liens, or otherwise.’

Persons of low income are defined as

‘persons or families who lack the amount of income which is necessary * * * to enable them, without financial assistance, to live in decent, safe and sanitary dwellings, without overcrowding.’

The article explicitly singles out low-income persons to bear its burden. Publicly assisted housing developments designed to accommodate the aged, veterans, state employees, persons of moderate income, or any class of citizens other than the poor, need not be approved by prior referenda.*

In my view, Art. XXXIV on its face constitutes invidious discrimination which the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment plainly prohibits. ‘The States, of course, are prohibited by the Equal Protection Clause from discriminating between ‘rich’ and ‘poor’ as such in the formulation and application of their laws.’ Douglas v. California, 372 U.S. 353, 361, 83 S.Ct. 814, 818, 9 L.Ed.2d 811 (1963) (Harlan, J., dissenting). Article XXXIV is neither ‘a law of general applicability that may affect the poor more harshly than it does the rich,’ ibid., nor an ‘effort to redress economic imbalances,’ ibid. It is rather an explicit classification on the basis of poverty—a suspect classification which demands exacting judicial scrutiny, see McDonald v. Board of Election Commissioners, 394 U.S. 802, 807, 89 S.Ct. 1404, 1407, 22 L.Ed.2d 739 (1969); Harper v. Virginia Board of Elections, 383 U.S. 663, 86 S.Ct. 1079, 16 L.Ed.2d 169 (1966); Douglas v. California, supra.

The Court, however, chooses to subject the article to no scrutiny whatsoever and treats the provision as if it contained a totally benign, technical economic classification. Both the appellees and the Solicitor General of the United States as amicus curiae have strenuously argued, and the court below found, that Art. XXXIV, by imposing a substantial burden solely on the poor, violates the Fourteenth Amendment. Yet after observing that the article does not discriminate on the basis of race, the Court’s only response to the real question in these cases is the unresponsive assertion that ‘referendums demonstrate devotion to democracy, not to bias, discrimination, or prejudice.’ It is far too late in the day to contend that the Fourteenth Amendment prohibits only racial discrimination; and to me, singling out the poor to bear a burden not placed on any other class of citizens tramples the values that the Fourteenth Amendment was designed to protect.

I respectfully dissent.

Last modified: 2022-12-27 12:50
Case internal grade: A | Case internal status: OK |
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