Settlement Keeps Fair Housing Law Safe From Roberts Court, For Now

Parties to one of the most significant Supreme Court cases this term have settled their lawsuit, averting a ruling that could have obliterated the standard for alleging racial discrimination in housing. The settlement was made official when the Mount Holly Township Council approved the deal Wednesday night, meaning the justices will no longer hear scheduled oral argument December 4.

The case involved a plan to demolish a largely minority neighborhood in Mount Holly, N.J., to build newer, more expensive housing in its place. As in countless other housing discrimination cases, plaintiffs sought to prove that this discriminates against minorities through evidence known as “disparate impact” — statistical evidence that shows a policy yields a disproportionate adverse outcome for minorities, without requiring plaintiffs to meet the exceedingly high bar of proving discriminatory intent.

This approach has been approved by all nine federal appeals courts to consider the question, and HUD even issued a regulation in January interpreting the Fair Housing Act as allowing claims of disparate racial impact. But many expected that the Roberts Court would be inclined to roll all this progress back, given its hostility to the Voting Rights Act, affirmative action, and other means for rooting out racial discrimination.

The settlement, which allots 20 of the 44 new homes to current residents and relocation allowances to others, is the second in two years to dodge a showdown on this issue. But with the Supreme Court eager to hear this issue, other cases may not be far behind.