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This Article revisits the state action doctrine, a judicial invention that shields “private” or “non-governmental” discrimination from constitutional scrutiny. Traditionally, this doctrine has applied to discrimination even in places of public accommodation, like restaurants, hotels, and grocery stores. Born of overt racial discrimination, the doctrine has inflicted substantial injustice throughout its inglorious history, and courts have continuously struggled in vain to coherently apply the doctrine. Yet, the United States Supreme Court has not fully insulated “private” or “horizontal” relations among persons from constitutional scrutiny. The cases in which it has applied constitutional norms to non-governmental actors should be celebrated rather than shunned. This Article proposes reinterpreting the state action doctrine to mitigate its historical and contemporary harms. Ultimately, the Authors draw from property law theory to contend that the doctrine should be fundamentally reformed in favor of a more egalitarian conception of the state’s role in ensuring equal protection of law. The insights of property law theory lead the Authors to conclude that: (1) equal protection depends on law, not action; (2) common law is law and, whether it is coercive or permissive, it must comply with the Equal Protection Clause; and (3) common law that allows discriminatory exclusion from the marketplace violates the Equal Protection Clause. What matters, for the purposes of constitutional protection, is not “state action” but whether the law violates the norms of liberty, equality, and dignity recognized by free and democratic societies.



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