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Clinic files Supreme Court brief on housing discrimination case

The Penn State Civil Rights Appellate Clinic filed an amici curiae brief with the U.S. Supreme Court on behalf of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights in Township of Mount Holly v. Mt. Holly Gardens Citizens in Action, Inc. (No. 11-1507).
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The Penn State Civil Rights Appellate Clinic filed an amici curiae brief with the U.S. Supreme Court on behalf of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights in Township of Mount Holly v. Mt. Holly Gardens Citizens in Action, Inc. (No. 11-1507).

The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights (Leadership Conference) is a coalition of over 200 of the nation’s leading civil rights groups, such as the American Civil Liberties Union, Amnesty International USA, Equal Justice Society, NAACP, National Urban League, and others.  In addition to the 200 member organizations, four non-member organizations also signed on to the Clinic’s brief.

“The students at the clinic were terrific.  They were engaged, creative, diligent and tireless in their efforts to put together a quality brief in a very short period of time.  We look forward to future collaborations,” said Lisa Bornstein, senior policy counsel at the Leadership Conference, who coordinates the organization's amicus work.

Teamwork and time management were key, explained Michael Foreman, director of the Penn State Law Civil Rights Appellate Clinic, who strives to match clinic operations to that of top-notch law firms. “They drafted the brief, completed multiple rounds of edits, and submitted a final draft to the printer on an extremely compressed time frame.”

The Issues

The case centers on the township of Mount Holly’s efforts to redevelop a blighted urban development called The Gardens, comprised predominantly of low and moderate income households. According to the 2000 U.S. Census, about 21% of the township’s residents were African American and 9% were Hispanic around the time the project began. A much higher proportion of minority individuals resided in the Gardens, about 46% and 25%, respectively. The Gardens was the only neighborhood in the relatively small town of Mount Holly, New Jersey, with predominately minority residents. Current and former residents of The Gardens brought suit under the Fair Housing Act (FHA) because the effect of the redevelopment project was to make housing unavailable to them based on their race.

The Supreme Court must decide whether disparate impact claims are cognizable under the FHA. Foreman explained that the Court must determine whether the FHA allows suits in cases where discrimination was unintentional, or whether only intentional discrimination claims are available. The Leadership Conference supports the continued recognition of disparate claims under the FHA.

A Brandeis Brief

Rather than a traditional legal analysis the brief was more in the nature of a “Brandeis Brief” named after Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, who is credited with pioneering the legal brief supported by social context and scientific evidence. The amicus brief authored by the Civil Rights Appellate Clinic focuses on the historical and societal context of disparate impact claims under the FHA. The brief stresses the historical context in which Congress enacted the FHA, i.e. in the wake of the assassination of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and that the FHA was designed to combat the effects of both intentional and unintentional housing discrimination in an effort to rid American society of urban minority ghettos. Because these segregated housing patterns continue to exist in the United States, the Clinic argued, disparate impact claims are still necessary to continue to move toward Dr. King’s dream of an equal society and to achieve the ultimate goals of the FHA.

The brief also demonstrates that disparate impact claims under the FHA have become a part of the fabric of the American society’s commitment to civil rights.  Throughout the past four decades, every court of appeals to address the question has held that disparate impact claims are cognizable under the FHA.  Further, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), the agency charged with interpreting and enforcing the FHA, has agreed. The brief argues that the Court should ratify interpretation of the FHA advanced by the courts of appeals and HUD to continue to protect minorities and other classes from both intentional and unintentional housing discrimination.

The case is listed for argument before the Supreme Court on December 4, 2013. Penn State Law students Kate Steffen, Chad Stevenson, Courtney Bedell, Nate Foote, Megan Janowiak, Elizabeth Ashbaugh and graduate assistant Alison Renfrew contributed to the brief and look forward to hearing the issues argued before the Supreme Court. 

Download the Brief 

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