Palmer v. Thompson
403 U.S. 217 (1971)

  • The city of Jackson, Mississippi owned 5 swimming pools in public parks. They were racially segregated.
  • A group of citizens sued, claiming that segregation was an unconstitutional violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment.
  • The Trial Court found that it was not constitutional permissible for Jackson to operate segregated pools.
  • The Appellate Court affirmed.
  • In response, Jackson simply closed four of their pools and sold the fifth to a private owner who continued to operate it for whites only.
    • Jackson argued that there was no way they could run desegregated pools in a safe and economical manner.
  • The citizens sued again, this time to have the pools reopened on a desegregated basis.
    • The citizens argued that since the pools had been closed to avoid desegregation there was a denial of equal protection.
  • The Trial Court found there was no denial of equal protection by closing the pools.
    • Since the pools were totally closed for everyone, everybody was being treated equally.
  • The Appellate Court affirmed
  • The US Supreme Court affirmed.
    • The US Supreme Court found that even if there was a discriminatory purpose to Jackson’s actions, in order to be a violation of the Equal Protection Clause, there must also be a discriminatory effect.
      • There is no affirmative duty under the 14th Amendment to provide services, or continue to maintain swimming pools.
      • So long as everyone suffers the same effect, equal protection is satisfied, regardless of the motivation.
    • The Court found that there was no evidence that Jackson conspired with the private pool owner to retain segregation.
  • In a dissent it was argued that closing public services has a disproportional impact on the poor (who don’t have their own pools). In addition, Jackson’s actions send the message that protests and lawsuits come with a high price, thereby stifling free speech.
  • The basic rule illustrated by this case is that in order for a facially-neutral law to be a violation of the Equal Protection Clause, racial discrimination by the State must contain two elements:
    • A racially disproportionate impact and
    • Discriminatory motivation on the part of the state actor.