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Supreme Court Sides With Civil Rights Advocates In Fair Housing Case

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

The health care decision isn't the only thing the Supreme Court handed down today. Civil rights advocates were also handed a major victory. Justices voted 5 to 4 to embrace a critical tool to fight racial segregation in housing. NPR's Carrie Johnson reports the case could have broad implications.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: It's not usually big news when the Supreme Court upholds a 45-year-old law. But this dispute between a Dallas nonprofit group and Texas authorities over tax credits for low-income housing was anything but routine. Civil rights advocates had long feared what the high court might do with a challenge over how plaintiffs can prove racial bias. Turns out they had little reason to be pessimistic. Led by Justice Anthony Kennedy, the court voted 5 to 4 to continue to allow people to sue governments and landlords on a theory of disparate impact. That theory uses statistics and other evidence to demonstrate a decision hurts minorities, even if it wasn't intentional. Myron Orfield, a law professor at the University of Minnesota, cheered the ruling.

MYRON ORFIELD: These are good things. It was a decision that I think should make civil rights people in the country, people that believed in disparate impact and the use of the Fair Housing Act to reduce residential segregation, I think it should make breathe easy.

JOHNSON: And Orfield says the decision will have big implications nationwide.

ORFIELD: This issue, this Texas housing issue, is an issue that reverberates in every big city in the country.

JOHNSON: Justice Kennedy's opinion traces the history of the law, from its roots in the social unrest of the 1960s and '70s to its goal of moving the country toward integration. Cities are more diverse now, Justice Kennedy says, but many public housing agencies still concentrate low-income residents in very poor neighborhoods, reinforcing racial segregation and a host of other problems. JP Schnapper Casteras works for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.

SCHNAPPER CASTERAS: Where you live and how - whether your neighborhood is segregated or not effects many other areas of your life - your education, your economic opportunities, your - just your daily routine.

JOHNSON: Casteras points out that Congress passed the Fair Housing Act soon after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. And he says ongoing debates over racial justice in places from Ferguson, Mo., to Baltimore make it every bit as relevant today.

CASTERAS: If ever there was one, this is not the moment to be rewinding the tape and starting to remove these key protections from civil rights law.

JOHNSON: In recent years, the Obama Justice Department has used disparate impact theory to challenge predatory lending purposes. That includes high mortgage rates banks charged African-Americans in the run-up to the financial crisis. The White House praised the ruling, saying the court majority recognized discrimination often operates in hidden forms, not out in the open with smoking gun emails or recordings plaintiffs can present in court. But Roger Clegg of the Center for Equal Opportunity says he's disappointed in the decision.

ROGER CLEGG: It encourages people to make decisions on the basis of race, which is exactly the opposite of what the civil rights statutes are supposed to do.

JOHNSON: Clegg says he takes some solace in part of the majority ruling that says plaintiffs need to link statistical evidence to a specific policy by landlords or lenders. And in his dissent, Justice Clarence Thomas says the numbers don't always tell the story. For instance, he says 70 percent of NBA players are black, and he says that can't be explained as a product of unlawful racial discrimination. Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.