People For the American Way Foundation

Roberts Court Sets Its Eye on Fair Housing Law

Wednesday morning, the Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in a case that is being heard only because of the ideological zeal of its conservative Justices. In the case of Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs v. The Inclusive Communities Project, the Court is being asked to severely undermine the Fair Housing Act.

Actually, it would be more accurate to say that the Roberts Court's right-wing majority has asked conservatives to send them a case giving them a chance to undermine the FHA, one of the most critically important tools we have to eradicate systemic discrimination in housing. Congress passed the law in 1968 in order to address obstacles to equal housing such as insurance redlining, discriminatory zoning ordinances, and unfair mortgage lending practices.

Under the FHA, a practice that has an unjustified discriminatory impact – even if you can't prove a discriminatory purpose – can be judged to violate the law. This is called "disparate impact." All 11 circuits to have considered the question carefully analyzed the text of the Fair Housing Act and agreed that disparate impact cases are covered under the law. These cases go back to the 1970s and 1980s, and Congress has never amended the law to say otherwise. The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) also interprets the law that way.

But conservatives have long been hostile to the idea of "disparate impact" anti-discrimination laws, whether in housing or elsewhere. This is a policy debate they have not been able to win in Congress, but they are hopeful that five right-wing Justices will change the Act for them.

That optimism stems from the fact that this isn't the first time the question has been before the Court. Despite the unanimity among the eleven circuit courts to address the issue, the Roberts Court in 2011 granted certiorari to a petitioner asking them to overturn the national consensus on the law. However, the parties in Magner v. Gallagher settled, meaning there was no longer any case for the Supreme Court to consider. The Roberts Court granted certiorari to a similar petition in 2013 (Mt. Holly v. Mt. Holly Citizens in Action), but that case, too, was settled before the Court could hear oral arguments.

In fact, HUD acted in 2013 in a way that makes the legal argument in support of disparate impact even stronger. While the circuit courts were uniform in their recognition that the FHA prohibits policies and practices with a discriminatory impact, they did not all agree on the same process the law requires lower courts to follow in disparate impact cases. So HUD adopted regulations interpreting the FHA and answering that question. Under Supreme Court precedent, the courts are supposed to defer to reasonable statutory interpretations by the agencies Congress has charged with enforcing those statutes, even if the judge would have interpreted the law differently. So HUD's new regulations make the argument against disparate impact even weaker.

Nevertheless, few were surprised in October of last year when the Roberts Court granted certiorari to yet another petitioner asking the Justices to eliminate the ability to target housing practices with an unjustified discriminatory effect. This is clearly an issue that at least four Justices (the number required to grant certiorari) are hungry to decide. They have a vision of what our nation's fair housing laws should look like, and they are set on turning that vision into reality.

Whether they have a majority is something we don't know yet. But we do know that the Court's decision (expected by the end of June) will have an enormous impact on whether we as a nation will be able to effectively confront and eliminate discrimination in housing.