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High court sustains use of critical tool in fair housing cases

With a nod to the role the Fair Housing Act has played in reducing segregation, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled today that housing discrimination cases can proceed in court upon a showing that a challenged practice disproportionately affects minorities, rejecting the argument that such cases turn upon proof of discriminatory intent and handing an important win to fair housing advocates and civil rights groups.

“The court acknowledges the Fair Housing Act’s continuing role in moving the nation toward a more integrated society,” Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote for the 5-4 majority in Texas Dep’t of Housing v. Inclusive Communities Project. He was joined in that decision by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan.

Justice Samuel Alito wrote a dissenting opinion, joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas.

A Texas non-profit filed the case before the court in 2008, alleging that the state housing agency distributed affordable housing tax credits in a way that thwarted integration efforts — disproportionately granting them to minority areas while denying them in white areas of Dallas.

But Texas argued that the group had to show that the government intended to discriminate — a hurdle that’s difficult to get over given that most companies and agencies don’t openly announce their intentions.

Over time all 11 federal appeals courts recognized such “disparate impact” claims under the Act and, as Justice Kennedy noted, developers and governmental bodies had begun considering them when developing plans and practices so as to avoid unnecessary harm to minority communities.

“Recognition of disparate impact liability under the FHA also plays a role in uncovering discriminatory intent: It permits plaintiffs to counteract unconscious prejudices and disguised animus that escape easy classification as disparate treatment,” Kennedy said.

Despite the consensus in the appeals courts, though, the Supreme Court has in recent years twice agreed to take cases challenging that view, only to see them settle before a ruling issued — both sides appreciating the risk associated with a ruling against their interests.

That willingness to take the cases had many in the fair housing world concerned that the justices were primed to reverse what had become an accepted and critical tool.

Today’s ruling brought both relief and hope for those advocates.

“We are pleased that the Supreme Court recognized decades of long-standing precedent in today’s ruling, ensuring the survival of an important tool to combat discrimination in America’s housing market,” Michele Jawando from the Center for American Progress said in a statement. “Equal opportunity and diverse, thriving communities are crucial to our national prosperity. Even unintentional housing discrimination denies families access to the social, economic, and health benefits of appropriate housing opportunities. We are at our strongest when our communities are more diverse and inclusive.

The court’s full opinion is here.

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  1. […] U.S. Supreme Court, in a ruling today, also upheld a judicial interpretation of the federal fair housing law that allows a showing of […]

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