Thursday, June 25, 2015
The Court's closely divided opinion in Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs v. Inclusive Communities Project, Inc., centers on the issue of whether the Fair Housing Act, 42 U. S. C. §3601 et seq., authorizes disparate impact (as distinguished from disparate treatment) claims. Writing for the Court, Justice Kennedy held that it does. Kennedy's statutory construction largely rests on interpretations of two precursor discriminatory statutes: Title VII (regarding employment) and the ADEA (prohibiting age discrimination). It also rests on Congress's 1988 amendments to the FHA which seemingly ratified the availability of disparate-impact liability.
Dissenting, Justice Thomas argued that the recognition of disparate-impact in Title VII by the Court in Griggs v. Duke Power (1971), was incorrect then and that error should not be repeated. In the primary dissent, by Justice Alito, and joined by Thomas, Scalia, and Chief Justice Roberts, the Court's opinion in Griggs is less disparaged. Instead, Alito argues that Griggs does not support the disparate impact interpretation of FHA, and that nothing in the FHA itself supports such an interpretation. Moreover, the dissent argues that disparate impact liability will have "unfortunate consequences" of increasing liability, echoing the dissent's graphic opening "No one wants to live in a rat's nest."
While a statutory interpretation question, Kennedy's opinion for the Court contains two important constitutional law matters.
First, the Court states that disparate-impact liability "has always been properly limited in key respects that avoid the serious constitutional questions that might arise under the FHA, for instance, if such liability were imposed based solely on a showing of a statistical disparity." Statistics are insufficient because there may be valid interests being served by the housing developers "analogous to the business necessity standard under Title VII" and thus "a defense against disparate-impact liability." Additionally, there must be a "robust causality requirement": "racial imbalance" without a specific link to the defendant's policy or policies causing the disparity cannot be sufficient. These "safeguards" are necessary lest FHA enforcement "set our Nation back in its quest to reduce the salience of race in our social and economic system."
Second, should a court find a disparate-impact violation of FHA, the remedies a court can order must be constitutional:
Remedial orders in disparate-impact cases should concentrate on the elimination of the offending practice that “arbitrar[ily] . . . operate[s] invidiously to discriminate on the basis of rac[e].” Ibid. If additional measures are adopted, courts should strive to design them to eliminate racial disparities through race-neutral means. See Richmond v. J.A. Croson Co., 488 U. S. 469, 510 (1989) (plurality opinion) (“[T]he city has at its disposal a whole array of race- neutral devices to increase the accessibility of city contracting opportunities to small entrepreneurs of all races”). Remedial orders that impose racial targets or quotas might raise more difficult constitutional questions.
While the automatic or pervasive injection of race into public and private transactions covered by the FHA has special dangers, it is also true that race may be considered in certain circumstances and in a proper fashion. Cf. Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School Dist. No. 1, 551 U. S. 701, 789 (2007) (KENNEDY, J., concurring in part and concurring in judgment) (“School boards may pursue the goal of bringing together students of diverse backgrounds and races through other means, including strategic site selection of new schools; [and] drawing attendance zones with general recognition of the demographics of neighborhoods”). Just as this Court has not “question[ed] an employer’s affirmative efforts to ensure that all groups have a fair opportunity to apply for promotions and to participate in the [promotion] process,” Ricci, 557 U. S., at 585, it likewise does not impugn housing authorities’ race-neutral efforts to encourage revitalization of communities that have long suffered the harsh consequences of segregated housing patterns. When setting their larger goals, local housing authorities may choose to foster diversity and combat racial isolation with race-neutral tools, and mere awareness of race in attempting to solve the problems facing inner cities does not doom that endeavor at the outset.
[ellipses in original].
Thus, Kennedy for the Court reiterates the so-called "affirmative action" cases that would be used to measure any remedies ordered for a finding of racial discrimination. Justices Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan, who joined Kennedy's opinion here, might not subscribe entirely to those views given their other opinions on race and equal protection.
[image: Fair Housing Protest, Seattle 1964, via]