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The action inhibited by the first section of U.S. Const. amend. XIV is only such action as may fairly be said to be that of the States. The Fourteenth Amendment erects no shield against merely private conduct, however discriminatory or wrongful.
The cases involved suits in state courts to enforce restrictive covenants in deeds of residential property whereby the owners agreed that the property should not be used or occupied by any person except a Caucasian. In these cases, the properties involved were purchased by African Americans. The respective owners filed suit to enforce the restrictive covenant.
Were private agreements that imposed restrictive covenants for the purpose of excluding persons of designated race or color from the ownership or occupancy of real property unconstitutional?
On certiorari, the Supreme Court of the United States reversed the state courts' decisions upholding the covenants because, in granting judicial enforcement of the covenants, the states denied petitioners the equal protection of the laws. Although there was no state statute regulating the matter, there was nonetheless state action within the meaning of U.S. Const. amend. XIV. The action of the state courts in imposing penalties or depriving parties of substantive rights without providing adequate notice and an opportunity to defend themselves was a denial of due process of law guaranteed by U.S. Const. amend. XIV. Private agreements to exclude persons of designated race or color from the use or occupancy of real estate for residential purposes do not violate the Fourteenth Amendment; but it is violative of the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment for state courts to enforce them. The Court concluded that because of petitioners' race or color, they were denied rights of ownership or occupancy enjoyed as a matter of course by other citizens of different race or color.