|Evans v. Abney
[ Black ]
[ Douglas ]
[ Brennan ]
Evans v. Abney
MR. JUSTICE BLACK delivered the opinion of the Court.
Once again this Court must consider the constitutional implications of the 1911 will of United States Senator A. O. Bacon of Georgia which conveyed property in trust to Senator Bacon's home city of Macon for the creation of a public park for the exclusive use of the white people of that city. As a result of our earlier decision in this case, which held that the park, Baconsfield, could not continue to be operated on a racially discriminatory basis, Evans v. Newton, 382 U.S. 296 (1966), the Supreme Court of Georgia ruled that Senator Bacon's intention to provide a park for whites only had become impossible to fulfill and that, accordingly, the trust had failed and the parkland and other trust property had reverted by operation of Georgia law to the heirs of the Senator. 224 Ga. 826, 165 S.E.2d 160 (1968). [p437] Petitioners, the same Negro citizen of Macon who have sought in the courts to integrate the park, contend that this termination of the trust violates their rights to equal protection and due process under the Fourteenth Amendment. We granted certiorari because of the importance of the questions involved. 394 U.S. 1012 (1969). For the reasons to be stated, we are of the opinion that the judgment of the Supreme Court of Georgia should be, and it is, affirmed.
The early background of this litigation was summarized by MR. JUSTICE DOUGLAS in his opinion for the Court in Evans v. Newton, 382 U.S. at 297-298:
In 1911, United States Senator Augustus O. Bacon executed a will that devised to the Mayor and Council of the City of Macon, Georgia, a tract of land which, after the death of the Senator's wife and daughters, was to be used as "a park and pleasure ground" for white people only, the Senator stating in the will that, while he had only the kindest feeling for the Negroes, he was of the opinion that, "in their social relations, the two races (white and negro) should be forever separate." The will provided that the park should be under the control of a Board of Managers of seven persons, all of whom were to be white. The city kept the park segregated for some years, but in time let Negroes use it, taking the position that the park was a public facility which it could not constitutionally manage and maintain on a segregated basis.
Thereupon, individual members of the Board of Managers of the park brought this suit in a state court against the City of Macon and the trustees of certain residuary beneficiaries of Senator Bacon's estate, asking that the city be removed as trustee and that the court appoint new trustees, to whom title to the park would be transferred. The city [p438] answered, alleging it could not legally enforce racial segregation in the park. The other defendants admitted the allegation and requested that the city be removed as trustee.
Several Negro citizens of Macon intervened, alleging that the racial limitation was contrary to the laws and public policy of the United States, and asking that the court refuse to appoint private trustees. Thereafter the city resigned as trustee and amended its answer accordingly. Moreover, other heirs of Senator Bacon intervened and they and the defendants other than the city asked for reversion of the trust property to the Bacon estate in the event that the prayer of the petition were denied.
The Georgia court accepted the resignation of the city as trustee and appointed three individuals as new trustees, finding it unnecessary to pass on the other claims of the heirs. On appeal by the Negro intervenors, the Supreme Court of Georgia affirmed, holding that Senator Bacon had the right to give and bequeath his property to a limited class, that charitable trusts are subject to supervision of a court of equity, and that the power to appoint new trustees so that the purpose of the trust would not fail was clear. 220 Ga. 280, 138 S.E.2d 573.
The Court in Evans v. Newton, supra, went on to reverse the judgment of the Georgia Supreme Court and to hold that the public character of Baconsfield
requires that it be treated as a public institution subject to the command of the Fourteenth Amendment, regardless of who now has title under state law.
382 U.S. at 302. Thereafter, the Georgia Supreme Court interpreted this Court's reversal of its decision as requiring that Baconsfield be henceforth operated on a nondiscriminatory basis. "Under these circumstances," the state high court [p439] held,
we are of the opinion that the sole purpose for which the trust was created has become impossible of accomplishment, and has been terminated.
Evans v. Newton, 221 Ga. 870, 871, 18 S.E.2d 329, 330 (1966). Without further elaboration of this holding, the case was remanded to the Georgia trial court to consider the motion of Guyton G. Abney and others, successor trustees of Senator Bacon's estate, for a ruling that the trust had become unenforceable and that, accordingly the trust property had reverted to the Bacon estate and to certain named heirs of the Senator. The motion was opposed by petitioners and by the Attorney General of Georgia, both of whom argued that the trust should be saved by applying the cy pres doctrine to amend the terms of the will by striking the racial restrictions and opening Baconsfield to all the citizens of Macon without regard to race or color. The trial court, however, refused to apply cy pres. It held that the doctrine was inapplicable because the park's segregated, whites-only character was an essential and inseparable part of the testator's plan. Since the "sole purpose" of the trust was thus in irreconcilable conflict with the constitutional mandate expressed in our opinion in Evans v. Newton, the trial court ruled that the Baconsfield trust had failed, and that the trust property had, by operation of law, reverted to the heirs of Senator Bacon. On appeal, the Supreme Court of Georgia affirmed.
We are of the opinion that, in ruling as they did, the Georgia courts did no more than apply well settled general principles of Georgia law to determine the meaning and effect of a Georgia will. At the time Senator Bacon made his will, Georgia cities and towns were, and they still are, authorized to accept devises of property for the establishment and preservation of "parks and pleasure grounds" and to hold the property thus received in [p440] charitable trust for the exclusive benefit of the class of persons named by the testator. Ga.Code Ann., c. 69-5 (1967); Ga.Code Ann. §§ 108 203, 108-207 (1959). These provisions of the Georgia Code explicitly authorized the testator to include, if he should choose, racial restrictions such as those found in Senator Bacon's will. The city accepted the trust with these restrictions in it. When this Court, in Evans v. Newton, supra, held that the continued operation of Baconsfield as a segregated park was unconstitutional, the particular purpose of the Baconsfield trust as stated in the will failed under Georgia law. The question then properly before the Georgia Supreme Court was whether, as a matter of state law, the doctrine of cy pres should be applied to prevent the trust itself from failing. Petitioners urged that the cy pres doctrine allowed the Georgia courts to strike the racially restrictive clauses in Bacon's will so that the terms of the trust could be fulfilled without violating the Constitution.
The Georgia cy pres statutes upon which petitioners relied provide:
When a valid charitable bequest is incapable for some reason of execution in the exact manner provided by the testator, donor, or founder, a court of equity will carry it into effect in such a way as will as nearly as possible effectuate his intention.
Ga.Code Ann. § 108 202 (1959).
A devise or bequest to a charitable use will be sustained and carried out in this State, and in all cases where there is a general intention manifested by the testator to effect a certain purpose, and the particular mode in which he directs it to be done shall fail from any cause, a court of chancery may, by approximation, effectuate the purpose in a manner most similar to that indicated by the testator.
Ga.Code Ann. § 113 816 (1969). [p441] The Georgia courts have held that the fundamental purpose of these cy pres provisions is to allow the court to carry out the general charitable intent of tie testator where this intent might otherwise be thwarted by the impossibility of the particular plan or scheme provided by the testator. Moss v. Youngblood, 187 Ga. 188, 200 S.E. 689 (1938). But this underlying logic of the cy pres doctrine implies that there is a certain class of cases in which the doctrine cannot be applied. Professor Scott, in his treatise on trusts, states this limitation on the doctrine of cy pres which is common to many States [n1] a follows:
It is not true that a charitable trust never fails where it is impossible to carry out the particular purpose of the testator. In some cases . . . , it appears that the accomplishment of the particular purpose, and only that purpose, was desired by the testator, and that he had no more general charitable intent, and that he would presumably have preferred to have the whole trust fail if the particular purpose is impossible of accomplishment. In such a case, the cy pres doctrine is not applicable.
4 A. Scott, The Law of Trusts § 399, p. 3085 (3d ed.1967).
In this case, Senator Bacon provided an unusual amount of information in his will from which the Georgia courts could determine the limits of his charitable purpose. Immediately after specifying that the park should be for
the sole, perpetual and unending, use, benefit and enjoyment of the white women, white girls, white boys and white children of the City of Macon,
the Senator stated that
the said property under no circumstances . . . (is) to be . . . at any time for any reason [p442] devoted to any other purpose or use excepting so far as herein specifically authorized.
And the Senator continued:
I take occasion to say that, in limiting the use and enjoyment of this property perpetually to white people, I am not influenced by any unkindness of feeling or want of consideration for the Negroes, or colored people. On the contrary I have for them the kindest feeling, and for many of them esteem and regard, while for some of them I have sincere personal affection.
I am, however, without hesitation in the opinion that, in their social relations, the two races. . . should be forever separate, and that they should not have pleasure or recreation grounds to be used or enjoyed together and in common.
The Georgia courts, construing Senator Bacon's will as a whole, Yerbey v. Chandler, 194 Ga. 263, 21 S.E.2d 636 (1942), concluded from this and other language in the will that the Senator's charitable intent was not "general," but extended only to the establishment of a segregated park for the benefit of white people. The Georgia trial court found that
Senator Bacon could not have used language more clearly indicating his intent that the benefits of Baconsfield should be extended to white persons only, or more clearly indicating that this limitation was an essential and indispensable part of his plan for Baconsfield.
App. 519. Since racial separation was found to be an inseparable part of the testator's intent, the Georgia courts held that the State's cy pres doctrine could not be used to alter the will to permit racial integration. See Ford v. Thomas, 111 Ga. 493, 36 S.E. 841 (1900); Adams v. Bass, 18 Ga. 130 (1855). The Baconsfield trust was therefore held to have failed, and, under Georgia law,
[w]here a trust is expressly created, but [its] uses . . . fail from any cause, a resulting trust [p443] is implied for the benefit of the grantor, or testator, or his heirs.
Ga.Code Ann. § 108 106(4) (1959). [n2] The Georgia courts concluded, in effect, that Senator Bacon would have rather had the whole trust fail than have Baconsfield integrated.
When a city park is destroyed because the Constitution requires it to be integrated, there is reason for everyone to be disheartened. We agree with petitioners that, in such a case, it is not enough to find that the state court's result was reached through the application of established principles of state law. No state law or act can prevail in the face of contrary federal law, and the federal courts must search out the fact and truth of [p444] any proceeding or transaction to determine if the Constitution has been violated. Presbyterian Church v. Hull Church, 393 U.S. 440 (1969); New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254 (1964). Here, however, the action of the Georgia Supreme Court declaring the Baconsfield trust terminated presents no violation of constitutionally protected rights, and any harshness that may have resulted from the state court's decision can be attributed solely to its intention to effectuate as nearly as possible the explicit terms of Senator Bacon's will.
Petitioners first argue that the action of the Georgia court violates the United States Constitution in that it imposes a drastic "penalty," the "forfeiture" of the park merely because of the city's compliance with the constitutional mandate expressed by this Court in Evans v. Newton. Of course, Evans v. Newton did not speak to the problem of whether Baconsfield should or could continue to operate as a park; it held only that its continued operation as a park had to be without racial discrimination. But petitioners now want to extend that holding to forbid the Georgia courts from closing Baconsfield on the ground that such a closing would penalize the city and its citizens for complying with the Constitution. We think, however, that the will of Senator Bacon and Georgia law provide all the justification necessary for imposing such a "penalty." The construction of wills is essentially a state law question, Lyeth v. Hoey, 305 U.S. 188 (1938), and, in this case, the Georgia Supreme Court, as we read its opinion, interpreted Senator Bacon's will as embodying a preference for termination of the park, rather than its integration. Given this, the Georgia court had no alternative under its relevant trust law, which are long standing and neutral with regard to race, but to end the Baconsfield trust and return the property to the Senator's heirs. [p445]
A second argument for petitioners stresses the similarities between this case and the case in which a city holds an absolute fee simple title to a public park and then closes that park of its own accord solely to avoid the effect of a prior court order directing that the park be integrated as the Fourteenth Amendment commands. Yet, assuming arguendo that the closing of the park would in those circumstances violate the Equal Protection Clause, that case would be clearly distinguishable from the case at bar because, there, it is the State, and not a private party, which is injecting the racially discriminatory motivation. In the case at bar, there is not the slightest indication that any of the Georgia judges involved were motivated by racial animus or discriminatory intent of any sort in construing and enforcing Senator Bacon's will. Nor is there any indication that Senator Bacon, in drawing up his will, was persuaded or induced to include racial restrictions by the fact that such restrictions were permitted by the Georgia trust statutes. Supra at 396 U.S. 439"]439-140. On the contrary, the language of the Senator's will shows that the racial restrictions were solely the product of the testator's own full-blown social philosophy. Similarly, the situation presented in this case is also easily distinguishable from that presented in 439-140. On the contrary, the language of the Senator's will shows that the racial restrictions were solely the product of the testator's own full-blown social philosophy. Similarly, the situation presented in this case is also easily distinguishable from that presented in Shelley v. Kraemer, 334 U.S. 1 (1948), where we held unconstitutional state judicial action which had affirmatively enforced a private scheme of discrimination against Negroes. Here, the effect of the Georgia decision eliminated all discrimination against Negroes in the park by eliminating the park itself, and the termination of the park was a loss shared equally by the white and Negro citizens of Macon, since both races would have enjoyed a constitutional right of equal access to the park's facilities had it continued.
Petitioners also contend that, since Senator Bacon did not expressly provide for a reverter in the event [p446] that the racial restrictions of the trust failed, no one can know with absolute certainty that the Senator would have preferred termination of the park rather than its integration, and the decision of the Georgia court therefore involved a matter of choice. It might be difficult to argue with these assertions if they stood alone, but then petitioners conclude:
Its [the court's] choice, the anti-Negro choice, violates the Fourteenth Amendment, whether it be called a "guess," an item in "social philosophy," or anything else at all.
We do not understand petitioners to be contending here that the Georgia judges were motivated either consciously or unconsciously by a desire to discriminate against Negroes. In any case, there is, as noted above, absolutely nothing before this Court to support a finding of such motivation. What remains of petitioners' argument is the idea that the Georgia courts had a constitutional obligation in this case to resolve any doubt about the testator's intent in favor of preserving the trust. Thus stated, we see no merit in the argument. The only choice the Georgia courts either had or exercised in this regard was their judicial judgment in construing Bacon's will to determine his intent, and the Constitution imposes no requirement upon the Georgia courts to approach Bacon's will any differently than they would approach any will creating any charitable trust of any kind. Surely the Fourteenth Amendment is not violated where, as here, a state court operating in its judicial capacity fairly applies its normal principles of construction to determine the testator's true intent in establishing a charitable trust and then reaches a conclusion with regard to that intent which, because of the operation of neutral and nondiscriminatory state trust laws, effectively denies everyone, whites as well as Negroes, the benefits of the trust. [p447]
Another argument made by petitioners is that the decision of the Georgia courts holding that the Baconsfield trust had "failed" must rest logically on the unspoken premise that the presence or proximity of Negroes in Baconsfield would destroy the desirability of the park for whites. This argument reflects a rather fundamental misunderstanding of Georgia law. The Baconsfield trust "failed" under that law not because of any belief on the part of any living person that whites and Negroes might not enjoy being together, but rather because Senator Bacon, who died many years ago, intended that the park remain forever for the exclusive use of white people.
Petitioners also advance a number of considerations of public policy in opposition to the conclusion which we have reached. In particular, they regret, as we do, the loss of the Baconsfield trust to the City of Macon, and they are concerned lest we set a precedent under which other charitable trusts will be terminated. It bears repeating that our holding today reaffirms the traditional role of the States in determining whether or not to apply their cy pres doctrines to particular trusts. Nothing we have said here prevents a state court from applying its cy pres rule in a case where the Georgia court, for example, might not apply its rule. More fundamentally, however, the loss of charitable trusts such as Baconsfield is part of the price we pay for permitting deceased persons to exercise a continuing control over assets owned by them at death. This aspect of freedom of testation, like most things, has its advantages and disadvantages. The responsibility of this Court, however, is to construe and enforce the Constitution and laws of the land as they are, and not to legislate social policy on the basis of our own personal inclinations.
In their lengthy and learned briefs, the petitioners and the Solicitor General as amicus curiae have advanced [p448] several arguments which we have not here discussed. We have carefully examined each of these arguments, however, and find all to be without merit.
The judgment is
MR. JUSTICE MARSHALL took no part in the consideration or decision of this case.
1. See, e.g., First Universalist Society v. Swett, 148 Me. 142, 90 A.2d 812 (1952); Lagrond v. City of Detroit, 357 Mich. 362, 98 N.W.2d 530 (1959).
2. Although Senator Bacon's will did not contain an express provision granting a reverter to any party should the trust fail, § 108-106(4) of the Georgia Code, quoted in the text, makes such an omission irrelevant under state law. At one point in the Senator's will, he did grant "all remainders and reversions" to the city of Macon, but the Supreme Court of Georgia showed in its opinion that this language did not relate in any way to what should happen upon a failure of the trust, but was relevant only to the initial vesting of the property in the city. The Georgia court said:
Senator Bacon devised a life estate in the trust property to his wife and two daughters, and the language pointed out by the intervenors appears in the following provision of the will:
When my wife, Virginia Lamar Bacon and my two daughters, Mary Louise Bacon Sparks and Augusta Lamar Bacon Curry, shall all have departed this life, and immediately upon the death of the last survivor of them, it is my will that all right, title and interest in and to said property hereinbefore described and bounded, both legal and equitable, including all remainders and reversions and every estate in the same of whatsoever kind, shall thereupon vest in and belong to the Mayor and Council of the City of Macon, and to their successors forever, in trust etc.
This language concerned remainders and reversions prior to the vesting of the legal title in the City of Macon, as trustee, and not to remainders and reversion occurring because of a failure of the trust, which Senator Bacon apparently did not contemplate, and for which he made no provision.