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Washington Supreme Court rules against Spokane homeowner in racial covenants case

Courtesy of University of Washington

Alex May wanted discriminatory language stricken from his home's historical record.

The Washington Supreme Court has ruled against a Spokane homeowner in a case involving a racially-discriminatory covenant in his home ownership documents.

In 2017 Alex May and his wife bought a house on Spokane’s South Hill. They discovered its title included language from a 1953 covenant that barred non-whites from owning the home. The language was long ago declared invalid, but May wants it completely removed from the property’s historical record.

“It’s like having a Confederate statue on your property,” said Bryan Pham from the Gonzaga School of Law, one of May’s attorneys. “The private owner can remove that Confederate statue, but in place of it they put a little plaque on the ground. The individual has the right to not have anything on their property that they don’t want to.”

Pham says, by having that language as part of the historical trail of their property, homeowners bear the weight of past discrimination.

Spokane County Auditor Vicky Dalton says she supports May’s intent but says the property’s historic record should be preserved. She says she doesn’t have the authority to erase the past, so May sued, asking a court to order Spokane County to destroy his property’s past discriminatory record.

Judges in Spokane County Superior Court and the state Court of Appeals ruled against him, so he took the case to the Washington Supreme Court.

Meanwhile, in 2021, the legislature approved a compromise bill, written in part by Dalton.

“It provides a court process to cleanse your chain of title for your property to remove that racially-restrictive covenant from your chain of title and yet provides a way for us to retain our history of what actually happened,” she said.

On Thursday, the state Supreme Court unanimously ruled the new law is an appropriate way to address May’s dilemma.

Justice G. Helen Whitener wrote that completely removing the language would destroy evidence that the covenants ever existed. If that happened, she said future generations might conclude that there was never any racial discrimination in the region’s past.

Meanwhile, Dalton says she and others are determining how the new state law will be administered and whether homeowners like Alex May will be required to go to court to get what they want.

Doug Nadvornick has spent most of his 30+-year radio career at Spokane Public Radio and filled a variety of positions. He is currently the program director and news director. Through the years, he has also been the local Morning Edition and All Things Considered host (not at the same time). He served as the Inland Northwest correspondent for the Northwest News Network, based in Coeur d’Alene. He created the original program grid for KSFC. He has also served for several years as a board member for Public Media Journalists Association. During his years away from SPR, he worked at The Pacific Northwest Inlander, Washington State University in Spokane and KXLY Radio.