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Happy Thanksgiving, and more

First of all, a Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours from the Center for Equal Opportunity! We at CEO have much to be thankful for this year, and that certainly includes supporters like you.

One thing we would not put on our most-thankful-for list, however, is wacky interpretations of the civil-rights laws. Speaking of which …

The Supreme Court granted review earlier this month in Magner v. Gallagher, which presents the question whether a “disparate impact” cause of action can be brought under the Fair Housing Act. Such lawsuits would allow plaintiffs to challenge housing-related practices that lead to disproportionate racial or ethnic results, whether or not they have anything to do with actual discrimination. For example, a preference for tenants without criminal records could be attacked if this or that racial or ethnic group was more likely to have such a record. Many lower courts have recognized disparate-impact lawsuits, alas, but the Supreme Court has never resolved the issue.

The issue is especially important in this administration, since the Justice Department is ramping up its use of the disparate-impact approach in a number of areas, including housing-related matters. In fact, civil-rights division head Thomas Perez gave a speech  saying just that on, ironically, the day the case was granted. (When I was serving in the Reagan administration, we urged the Supreme Court to reject this approach, but the Court, while recognizing the issue, ducked it in a case involving Huntington, New York, and then ducked it again more recently in a case against Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio.)

And after the Supreme Court granted review, last week the Department of Housing and Urban Development issued proposed regulations  that would take a “disparate impact” approach in enforcing the Fair Housing Act. Again, this came after the Supreme Court’s grant of review earlier this month in the case presenting the issue whether the Fair Housing2 Act contemplates such an approach at all.

Now, as I discuss in more detail below, the disparate-impact approach is bad law and bad policy. But isn’t it also unseemly for the administration to be proposing regulations that presume an interpretation of the statute that the Court may well reject in a few months?

As I was saying, the disparate-impact approach is fundamentally misguided. If an action does not consider race, does not use criteria that were chosen with racial results in mind, and is applied evenhandedly so that no one is treated differently on account of race—well, then, it’s not racial discrimination, which is what the statute forbids. Saying that there is a violation because a policy has a disproportionate racial result simply, and perversely, encourages the surreptitious consideration of race—or else the rejection of perfectly legitimate criteria. Neither result is fair.

And among those to whom it is unfair will be, ironically, members of the racial minorities on whose behalf such claims are made. Consider, to give one example, how challenging school discipline policies with a disparate impact will have the predictable result of less discipline in minority-dominant classrooms—and of course that means that the students suffering from the disruptions will be disproportionately minority. In the housing case at hand, the claim is brought by landlords who are unhappy that they are being forced to ensure there are no housing code violations. The landlords claim that such policies will increase costs for, especially, minority renters—but, of course, the victims of the housing code violations are also, disproportionately, minority renters.

It just doesn’t make sense to approach these matters as being about racial discrimination when, by any sane definition of the term, they are not.

For more nitty-gritty on the legal issue here, see this appendix  to some of my congressional testimony.

One last point: The recognition of a disparate-impact cause of action under the FHA would require mortgage eligibility determinations to avoid racial disproportionalities (see 42 U.S.C. 3605 of the FHA, which covers “residential real estate-related transactions,” including the “making or purchasing of loans … for purchasing … a dwelling … or secured by residential real estate” or “selling … residential real property”)—and, of course, that’s the last thing we need, given the evidence that race-driven mortgage lending helped lead to the 2007-2008 meltdown.

Hope this doesn’t spoil your turkey dinner ….