A police officer keeps watch outside the Supreme Court in Washington. (J. Scott Applewhite / Associated…)
WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court, rejecting the advice of the Obama administration, will consider whether to limit the federal housing discrimination law to cases of actual and proven bias against blacks or Latinos.
The justices voted to hear a New Jersey city’s appeal arguing it cannot be held liable for housing discrimination for redeveloping a depressed neighborhood and reducing the number of homes that are available to African Americans and Latinos.
At issue is whether the Fair Housing Act forbids actions by cities or mortgage lenders that have a “discriminatory effect” on racial minorities.
Last year, the high court was set to decide that issue in a case from St. Paul, Minn.
But the Justice Department’s civil rights chief Thomas Perez went to St. Paul and persuaded city officials to drop their appeal on the eve of the argument before the Supreme Court. He and other civil rights advocates feared a decision that would crimp enforcement of the laws against housing discrimination, including in the area of mortgage lending.
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Senate Republicans have sharply criticized Perez for his behind-the-scenes role in the St. Paul case and have cited it as a reason for blocking his nomination to head the Labor Department.
The Supreme Court has never ruled on whether the Fair Housing Act extends to claims of “discriminatory effect” or “disparate impact.”
And the Mount Holly, N.J., case raises just that issue.
The township, near Philadelphia, has a white majority, according to census data. The town council decided that one neighborhood of about 330 homes was “in need of redevelopment.” Known as Mount Holly Gardens, this neighborhood was home to most of the black and Latino residents in the town.
The town council voted to buy all the homes in the Gardens area for prices ranging from $32,000 to $49,000. They were to be replaced with new homes whose prices would range from $200,000 to $250,000.
In 2008, a community group representing the Gardens residents sued the city, arguing that its redevelopment plan was discriminatory and illegal because it would have a “disparate impact” on low-income African Americans and Latinos.
City officials said they were trying to improve a blighted part of town, not engage in illegal discrimination. But the U.S. appeals court in Philadelphia cleared the discrimination suit to go forward.
Last month, U.S. Solicitor General Donald Verrilli advised the court to reject the city’s appeal, noting that all the appeals courts had permitted these “disparate impact” suits.
The Supreme Court said it will reconsider that question in the fall in the case of Township of Mount Holly vs. Mt. Holly Gardens Citizens in Action.