The Supreme Court on Wednesday will hear arguments in Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs v. The Inclusive Communities Project, a case that will determine whether the federal Fair Housing Act (FHA) applies to conduct that, although not intentionally discriminatory, has an allegedly disparate impact on protected groups. Assertions that disparate-impact claims are cognizable under the FHA are difficult to square with the statutory language, which bars housing discrimination “because of” race, color, religion, sex, familial status, or national origin. The phrase “because of” suggests volition by the defendant, not merely that the effects of his actions were felt more strongly by members of protected groups. Proponents of disparate-impact liability frequently respond that whatever the scope of the FHA when first adopted in 1968, Congress later expanded the statute by acquiescing to an unbroken line of court and Executive Branch decisions that had interpreted the FHA as encompassing disparate-impact claims.
But an examination of the federal appeals court decisions cited by the Solicitor General and other disparate-impact claims proponents indicates that lower courts’ endorsement of such claims has been anything but uniform. Thus, putting to one side whether it is ever appropriate to discern the meaning of a federal statute based on evidence of Congress’s inaction in the wake of decisions construing the statute, the case for using that method of statutory interpretation in this instance is particularly weak.
In making the case for congressional acquiescence, the Solicitor General’s brief focuses on 1988, when Congress amended several FHA provisions but did not amend the “because of” language set forth in 42 U.S.C.§ 3604(a). According to the Solicitor General, “Between the enactment of the FHA in 1968 and its amendment in 1988, all nine of the courts of appeals to consider the issue concluded that the Act authorizes disparate impact claims.” Based on that history, he asserts, the 1988 amendments “confirm” that Congress sanctioned disparate-impact claims under the FHA. Continue reading