A deeply divided Supreme Court delivered an unexpected reprieve to civil rights groups on Thursday, ruling that housing discrimination need not be intentional in order to be illegal.
The justices said people objecting to lending, zoning, sales and rental practices only need to show that they had a disparate impact on blacks or other minorities under a federal fair-housing law.
The court's 5-4 decision, written by Justice Anthony Kennedy, was an unlikely conclusion to a years-long effort by opponents of the civil rights-era law to reduce its effectiveness against housing policies and practices used by many builders, lenders and insurers. Twice before, the justices had agreed to hear a challenge to the law, only to see the cases withdrawn or settled before reaching court.
"The Court acknowledges the Fair Housing Act's continuing role in moving the nation toward a more integrated society," Kennedy wrote.
Justice Samuel Alito, in a dissenting opinion joined by the court's other conservatives, accused his colleagues of "a serious mistake," which he said "will have unfortunate consequences for local government, private enterprise, and those living in poverty."