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Township of Mt. Holly v. Mt. Holly Gardens Citizens in Action (U.S. Sup. Ct.)

At issue in Township of Mt. Holly v. Mt. Holly Gardens Citizens in Action was whether housing practices and policies that have a disparate impact on minorities were a violation of the Fair Housing Act of 1968, legislation enacted to combat discrimination in both rental and home ownership markets.  Current and former residents of Mt. Holly Gardens challenged a redevelopment plan by Mt. Holly Township, New Jersey, as a violation of Section 804(a) of the Fair Housing Act.  After the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit overturned a lower court ruling that had failed to properly evaluate the Gardens residents’ evidence of disparate impact and remanded the case to the trial court for further proceedings, the Supreme Court granted review.

In 2003, Mt. Holly Township, New Jersey proposed to demolish all of the homes in Mt. Holly Gardens, the Township’s only predominantly African-American and Hispanic neighborhood, and to develop in its place a community of significantly more expensive housing units.  The majority of Gardens’ homeowners were long-time residents of the neighborhood, in many cases having paid off their mortgages and made plans to pass their homes on to their children.  While the Gardens residents were almost all classified as either “very low” or “extremely low” income under federal standards, these residents fought successfully to achieve homeownership; the Gardens had among the highest rate of minority homeownership in Burlington County.  However, if the Township proceeded with its so-called redevelopment plan, residents faced losing their homeownership and, unable to afford to live in the planned “Villages at Parker’s Mill” development, would likely have been relocated away from their neighborhood.

On October 28, 2013, CAC filed an amicus curiae brief in the Supreme Court in support of the residents of Mt. Holly Gardens. Our brief demonstrated that the text and history of the Fourteenth Amendment establish that Congress has the authority to prohibit laws and practices that result in racial discrimination in order to realize the Fourteenth Amendment’s guarantee of equality, a power that Supreme Court cases have long affirmed.  Indeed, contemporaneous with the passage of the Fourteenth Amendment, the Reconstruction-era Congress enacted measures that, like today’s disparate impact provisions, protected against practices—fair in form but discriminatory in result—that would have operated to deny African Americans important rights and benefits.  As we detailed in our brief, among the very first civil rights laws enacted by the Reconstruction Congress were laws targeting not just explicit racial classifications, but also neutrally-worded, generally applicable laws that were used to deny basic civil rights to African Americans.   The Reconstruction Framers’ overriding concern was to ensure the Constitution’s promise of equality was actually enjoyed by all persons regardless of race.  The Township’s argument that any consideration of race by government, even to ensure that its acts do not lead to racial discrimination, could not be squared with the Constitution’s text and history.  Accordingly, our brief urged the Court to reject claims by the Township and its allies that interpreting the FHA to protect against unjustified disparate impact raises constitutional problems under the Equal Protection Clause. 

On November 13, 2013, weeks prior to scheduled oral argument, the Township settled the case by agreeing to compensate Gardens residents who wanted to leave and provide new homes for those who wanted to stay. The Supreme Court subsequently dismissed the case. The settlement allows the Mt. Holly development to proceed, and averted a potentially damaging ruling by the Court’s conservative majority against important federal civil rights protections.