Petitioners Shelley and others, black individuals, received property from Fitzgerald a warranty deed to the property in question but the owners of the property sought to take the possession back pursuant to the terms of the restrictive covenant.
The action of state courts in imposing penalties or depriving parties of other substantive rights without providing adequate notice and opportunity to defend, has long been regarded as a denial of the due process of law guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment.
One August, 1945, pursuant to a contract of sale, petitioners Shelley, who are Negroes, for valuable consideration received from one Fitzgerald a warranty deed to the parcel in question. The trial court found that petitioners had no actual knowledge of the restrictive agreement at the time of the purchase. On October, 1945, respondents, as owners of other property subject to the terms of the restrictive covenant, brought suit alleging that petitioners Shelley should be restrained from taking possession of the property and that judgment be entered divesting title out of petitioners Shelley and revesting title in the immediate grantor or in such other person as the court should direct. The Missouri law declares that no part of the affected property shall be occupied to any person not of the Caucasian race, it being intended to restrict the use of said property against the occupancy as owners or tenants of any portion of said property for resident or other purpose by people of the Negro or Mongolian race. Not only does the restriction seek to proscribe use and occupancy of the affected properties by members of the excluded class, but the agreement requires that title of any person who uses his property in violation of the restriction shall be divested.
Do courts have the power to enforce private agreements that have the purpose of excluding persons of designated race or color from the ownership or occupancy of real property?
No, the rights created by the first section of the Fourteenth Amendment are, by its terms, guaranteed to the individual. The rights established are personal rights. It is, therefore, no answer to the petitioners to say that the courts may also be induced to deny white persons rights of ownership and occupancy on grounds of race or color. Equal protection of the laws is not achieved through indiscriminate imposition of inequalities.
That the action of state courts and of judicial officers in their official capacities is to be regarded as an action of the State within the meaning of the Fourteenth Amendment, is a proposition that has long been established by the decisions of the Court. Early cases demonstrate that state action in violation of the Amendment’s provisions is equally repugnant to the constitutional commands whether directed by state statute or taken by a judicial official in the absence of statute. This court had declared invalid a state statute restricting jury service to white persons as amounting to a denial of the equal protection of the laws to the colored defendant in that case. The Court also held that a similar discrimination imposed by the action of a state judge denied rights protected by the Amendment, despite the fact that the language of the state statute relating to jury service contained no such restrictions.