Justices strike down 'vague' part of career criminal law

WASHINGTON (AP) - The Supreme Court last Friday struck down part of a federal law intended keep people convicted of repeated violent crimes in prison longer.

The justices ruled that a catchall phrase in the Armed Career Criminal Act defining what crimes make a defendant eligible for a longer prison term is too vague.

The court sided with Samuel James Johnson, who pleaded guilty to federal weapons charges in 2012. Johnson was sentenced to 15 years in prison - five more than he otherwise would have gotten - because of his prior convictions.

That law lists burglary, arson, extortion and the use of explosive as specific categories of previous crimes that can lead to a longer sentence. But it also says a violent felony is a crime that "otherwise involves conduct that presents a serious potential risk of physical injury to another."

The court initially agreed to hear Johnson's case to decide whether his prior conviction for possessing a sawed-off shotgun qualified as a violent felony under the enhanced sentencing law.

But two months after hearing the case, the court ordered another round of arguments over whether the law's catchall phrase was so vague as to be unconstitutional.

Six justices agreed that the phrase is unconstitutional. Writing for the court, Justice Antonin Scalia said using "so shapeless a provision to condemn someone to prison for 15 years to life" violates the Constitution's guarantee of due process.

Justices Anthony Kennedy and Clarence Thomas agreed only on the outcome, saying they would find that Johnson's conviction for possession of a sawed-off shotgun does not qualify as a felony under the law.

Justice Samuel Alito was the lone dissenter. He said the language of the law was clear enough and noted that it's similar to dozens of other state and federal laws.

The justices have struggled with this phrase for years. Scalia had called on his colleagues to rule it unconstitutional since 2011.

The Armed Career Criminal Act makes defendants eligible for longer prison terms if they have three prior convictions for crimes that are either violent felonies or serious drug offenses.

According to federal authorities, Johnson is a white supremacist who formed the Aryan Liberation Movement. He was arrested in 2012 for taking part in a plan to attack the government, minorities and others, the government said.

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Court upholds key tool for fighting housing bias

By Sam Hananel
Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) - A sharply divided Supreme Court last Thursday preserved a key tool used for more than four decades to fight housing discrimination, handing a surprising victory to the Obama administration and civil rights activists.

The justices ruled 5-4 that federal housing law allows people to challenge lending rules, zoning laws and other housing practices that have a harmful impact on minority groups, even if there is no proof that companies or government agencies intended to discriminate.

Justice Anthony Kennedy, in a rare vote on the side of civil rights groups on matters of race, joined the court's four liberal members in upholding the use of so-called "disparate impact" cases.

The ruling is a victory for housing advocates who argued that the 1968 Fair Housing Act allows challenges to race-neutral policies that have negative effects on minorities. The Justice Department has used disparate impact lawsuits to win more than $500 million in legal settlements from companies accused of bias against black and Hispanic customers.

It was a defeat for banks, insurance companies and other business groups that claimed such lawsuits - often based on statistics - are not explicitly allowed under the landmark housing law that sought to eliminate segregation that has long existed in residential housing.

"The court acknowledges the Fair Housing Act's continuing role in moving the nation toward a more integrated society," Kennedy said.

The White House issued a statement saying the decision "reflects the reality that discrimination often operates not just out in the open, but in more hidden forms." And Attorney General Loretta Lynch said the Justice Department would continue to vigorously enforce the Fair Housing Act "with every tool at its disposal - including challenges based on unfair and unacceptable discriminatory effects."

In upholding the tactic, the high court preserved a legal strategy that has been used for more than 40 years to attack discrimination in zoning laws, occupancy rules, mortgage lending practices and insurance underwriting. Every federal appeals court to consider it has upheld the practice, though the Supreme Court had never previously ruled.

Civil rights groups and the Obama administration had tried for years to keep the issue out of the Supreme Court, fearing that conservatives wanted to end the strategy. Two previous cases that reached the court were settled or strategically withdrawn just weeks before oral argument.

The latest case involved an appeal from Texas officials accused of violating the Fair Housing Act by awarding federal tax credits in a way that kept low-income housing out of white neighborhoods.

A federal appeals court said a Dallas-based fair housing group, The Inclusive Communities Project, Inc., could use statistics to show that the effect of policies used by the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs had a negative impact on black residents.

The fair housing group said that even if there were no motive to discriminate, the government's policies still harmed black residents. The effect, the group claimed, was perpetuating segregated neighborhoods and denying blacks a chance to move into areas with better schools and lower crime.

Texas officials argued that it was unfair to have to justify or change policies that don't intentionally discriminate. While disparate impact has been used routinely in employment discrimination cases, they said such claims were not expressly written into the housing law. They argued that allowing them would essentially force them to make race-conscious decisions to avoid liability.

Writing for the majority, Kennedy said language in the housing law banning discrimination "because of race" allows for disparate impact cases. He said such lawsuits "may prevent segregated housing patterns that might otherwise result from covert and illicit stereotyping."

Kennedy was joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan.

In dissent, Justice Samuel Alito warned that the tactic can result in perverse outcomes. He cited a recent Minnesota case where a landlord used the law to sue city officials who forced him to combat rat infestation and unsanitary conditions in low income housing.

"Something has gone badly awry when a city can't even make slumlords kill rats without fear of a lawsuit," Alito said.

Alito was joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas.

Thomas also wrote separately to question the very foundation of the disparate impact theory, which the Supreme Court first allowed in employment discrimination cases in 1971.

"Racial imbalances do not always disfavor minorities," Thomas said, noting that over 70 percent of National Basketball Association players are black.

"To presume that these and all other measurable disparities are products of racial discrimination is to ignore the complexities of human existence," Thomas said.

Sherrilyn Ifill, president of NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, said the housing law was critical in bridging the nation's racial divide, especially in light of the shooting at a black church in Charleston, South Carolina.

"Anyone who has been paying attention in the last week knows that we can no longer afford to live the way we have as two separate bifurcated parts of this country," Ifill said.

David Hirschmann, who heads the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's Center for Capital Markets Competitiveness, said the business community supports anti-discrimination policies, but called disparate impact "ineffective and unfair."

The case is Texas Dept. of Housing and Community Affairs v. Inclusive Communities Project, Inc., 13-1371.


Associated Press writer Connie Cass contributed to this report.

Published: Mon, Jun 29, 2015