Tag: equal protection

It’s Constitutional for Voters to Stop Their Government from Discriminating Based on Race

Today the Supreme Court finally ruled on Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action, in which Cato filed a brief last summer. This is the case involving a challenge to a voter-approved Michigan state constitutional amendment that bans racial discrimination (including racial preferences) in higher education. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit had somehow manage to conclude that such a law violates the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause, which … requires that state governments treat everyone equally, regardless of race. The ruling was fractured – six justices voted to reverse the lower court, but for three separate reasons, plus a separate concurrence from Chief Justice John Roberts to respond to the two-justice dissent – but ultimately achieved the correct result: Michigan’s Proposal 2 stands.

But really Schuette is a much easier case than the above description might indicate. Indeed, it’s no surprise that six justices found that a state constitutional provision prohibiting racial discrimination complies with the federal constitutional provision that prohibits state racial discrimination. To hold otherwise would be to torture the English language to the point where constitutional text is absolutely meaningless. The only surprise – or, rather, the lamentable pity – is that Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg somehow agreed with the lower court’s confused determination that the Constitution requires what it barely tolerates (racial preferences in university admissions).

To quote the conclusion of Justice Antonin Scalia’s concurring opinion, for himself and Justice Clarence Thomas:

As Justice Harlan observed nearly a century ago, “[o]ur Constitution is color-blind, and neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens.” Plessy v. Ferguson, 163 U. S. 537, 559 (1896) (dissenting opinion). The people of Michigan wish the same for their governing charter. It would be shameful for us to stand in their way.

This case was so easy precisely because it didn’t involve the fraught question of whether states can pursue race-conscious measures in order to achieve (some mythical) diversity. Instead, it was about the democratic process and whether voters can rein in the powers of their state government. The answer to that question, like the answer to the question of whether the Equal Protection Clause mandates racial preferences, is self-evident. 

Here’s the full decision, which begins with a plurality opinion by Justice Anthony Kennedy, for himself, the chief justice, and Justice Samuel Alito.

Supporting Individual Rights, Opposing Eminent Domain Abuse

A recent blogpost published by Doug Kendall of the Constitutional Accountability Center (with whom we sometimes work with on op-eds and briefscriticized Cato’s involvement in Mount Holly v. Mount Holly Gardens Citizens in Action as cowardly, and inconsistent with our ideals. While Cato has great respect for any organization that, like the CAC, works “to preserve the rights and freedoms of all Americans,” their criticism of our brief is baseless, and grossly mischaracterizes Cato’s position in the case and track record generally. 

While I’m wary of misrepresenting the post through over-simplification, it can be boiled down to the following: 

  1. Mount Holly is a case about eminent domain;
  2. Pro-property rights groups (including Cato) have a history of “howling” against eminent domain;
  3. Those groups’ failure to argue against eminent domain in this case (and their support of the Township of Mount Holly), is inconsistent with their previous stance on property rights, and evinces a lack of moral courage;
  4. That failure can be explained because this case is also about civil rights and equality, and conservative groups hate equality, and live to help the state further oppress the downtrodden masses. 

 CAC’s criticism stems from an incorrect framing of the case at hand:

an important case out of Mount Holly, New Jersey, that involves Fair Housing Act (FHA) claims in the context of an effort by Mount Holly Township to use eminent domain to redevelop its only predominately minority community—and in the process, displace and raze the homes of its residents.

While that description is accurate in that the case is important, originates in Mount Holly, and concerns the applicability of the Fair Housing Act to a redevelopment plan, the case before the Supreme Court has nothing to do with eminent domain. The question to be argued before high court couldn’t be plainer: “Whether disparate impact claims are cognizable under the Fair Housing Act.”

It’s surprising that CAC would make such a basic mistake about the case, given that they filed a brief in the case, supporting the Mount Holly residents (a brief which makes no mention of eminent domain – at all).

“Eminent domain” refers to a specific way that the government can acquire private property against the will of the owner. So far, Mount Holly Township hasn’t resorted to eminent domain. Of the 329 properties that the township wants to include in the redevelopment plan, it has been able to acquire all but 70 of them through voluntary sales. If those remaining 70 owners – some of whom are parties to the case – were to challenge any attempts to expropriate their homes, Cato would be first in line to file a brief in their support, probably joined by those “howling”  pro-property groups like the Institute for Justice and Pacific Legal Foundation. (Sadly, it’s unlikely that we would garner CAC’s support, because the group has “long supported the reasonable use of eminent domain for redevelopment purposes.”)

No, this case isn’t about eminent domain because the residents aren’t challenging the township’s acquisition of property, but what it intends to do with that property. In a nutshell, the plaintiffs argue that the Fair Housing Act – which forbids governments and private individuals from refusing “to sell or rent … or otherwise make unavailable or deny, a dwelling to any person because of race, color, religion, sex, familial status, or national origin” – bars not just intentional discrimination like restrictive covenants, but also any action that, even if entirely neutral and colorblind,  has a “disproportionate impact” on the ability of members of a protected class to buy or rent a home. They argue not that Mount Holly is intentionally discriminating against minority residents, but that the increase in property values as a result of redevelopment would effectively price the poor out of the neighborhood – and that counts as discrimination because the poorer residents are disproportionately drawn from minority groups

Cato opposes that theory of law generally, for the same reason that we oppose governmental abuse of eminent domain: we stand firmly against attempts by the government to control how people may dispose of their property. A homeowner should be able to sell his house for whatever price he thinks fair – without worrying that if his asking price is too high, he’ll be accused of racism and forced to defend himself in court. Our position in Mount Holly is the product of the reasoned and consistent application of well-articulated liberal principles, not “cowardice.”

As a closing note, we take issue with the implication that Cato “detests civil rights statutes.” Cato supports laws that protect individual freedom and opposes those that don’t. We may disagree with CAC on whether a law falls in the first or second category, regardless of whether it’s a “civil rights” statute or otherwise, but make no mistake that we support individual civil (and other) rights.

Indeed, we believe that the first and foremost duty of civil rights legislation (and constitutions) is to protect citizens from undue state interference with their daily lives and liberties. A reading of the FHA that embraces disparate impact claims doesn’t protect individuals from the state but instead represents an expansion of state interference. Behavior that was once lawful – selling your home for whatever price you wish – would become sanctionable. Disparate impact theory holds private individuals responsible not for personal bigotry, or the direct consequences of their actions, but for economic realities beyond their control – and that makes no one freer, nor more equal.

Update: Repeating what happened in the previous disparate-impact FHA case, Magner v. Gallagher, this case has apparently settled. The only question now is what the administration did to keep this issue away from the Supreme Court again. 

Further update: A couple of readers familiar with the facts on the ground in Mount Holly point out that while it’s technically correct that Mount Holly “hasn’t resorted to eminent domain,” the town’s redevelopment plan is indeed all-too-typical of eminent-domain abusers. That is, while not employing eminent domain – no condemnation proceedings have (yet) been filed – the town threatened to use it and then claimed “voluntary” sales when the homeowners capitulated. The redevelopment authority has represented that the incentives it offered for relocation were greater than what homeowners would’ve gotten from the eminent domain process – that alas is probably true, because the compensation paid for government takings is rarely “just” – but of course they would’ve had to sweeten the deal even more if they couldn’t threaten eminent domain in the first place. In other words, as we and our pro-property-rights allies have long argued, the ultimate solution is to reverse Kelo v. New London and take away the government’s ability to forcibly transfer property from one private party to another. If such eminent-domain-abuse claims aren’t foreclosed by the Mount Holly settlement, I suggest that the town’s residents hire IJ to litigate them. Cato would look forward to filing an amicus brief in support.

This blogpost was co-authored by Cato legal associate Gabriel Latner.

Equal Protection Nonsense: Women at West Point Edition

On NPR’s Morning Edition today you’ll find the story “West Point Women: A Natural Pattern or a Camouflage Ceiling?” Reporter Larry Abramson leaves us with the impression that, in the words of Col. Ellen Haring (class of ’84), “women are being excluded from a taxpayer-funded educational opportunity”—or, as Abramson puts it:

The Army says it wants more women in the officer corps. The question is whether more will join an organization where their [sic] are still perceived limits on their numbers.

Col. Haring has a point, or would have one if the aim of West Point were simply to afford young men and women an “educational opportunity.” But the American people, through their representatives, presumably had a more precise goal in mind when they created West Point in the first place. National defense is a quintessential public good, defined as economists do, so we don’t need to argue about whether the government should be in that business. To be sure, the purpose of an army officer corps, pursuant to that goal, may change as technology changes. But for the present and the foreseeable future, there are certain limits on the composition of the corps that are set by its very function. By virtue of that function, the Army, at least at the officer level, never has been and, one hopes, never will be a come-one-come-all equal opportunity employer. The American people would be ill-served were that to happen.

Obama Administration Ignores Supreme Court, Encourages Racial Preferences

Two months ago I wrote about the University of Texas’s attempts to delay the final reckoning from the Supreme Court’s near-unanimous ruling in the Fisher case that public institutions must overcome a high constitutional bar when they use race in admissions decisions. Courts must make “a careful judicial inquiry into whether a university could achieve sufficient diversity without using racial classifications.”

“The university must prove,” Justice Kennedy wrote for the 7-justice majority, “that the means chosen by the university to attain diversity are narrowly tailored.” Far from attempting to prove that, however, UT-Austin is playing lawyer games and trying to re-litigate previously decided procedural issues.

But at least UT-Austin recognizes that its back is against the wall. The Obama administration, for its part, is pretending that nothing has changed, that colleges can continue discriminating based on skin color to achieve their elusive “diversity.”

On Friday, the federal Justice and Education Departments issued a joint “guidance” on the meaning of Fisher v. UT-Austin. This advice, consisting of a platitudinal cover letter and a superficial Q & A. The government’s position, remarkably, is that Fisher simply reaffirmed 2003’s ruling in Grutter v. Bollinger, which held that educational diversity could be a compelling interest that justified racial preferences at the University of Michigan. “Run along, nothing to see here,” the various civil-rights-division bureaucrats seem to say, “the Supreme Court just vacated the lower court’s decision because it didn’t check all the procedural boxes.

To say that the government is being disingenuous here would be like saying that Ted Cruz has a mild distaste for Obamacare. As Richard Kahlenberg comments at the blog of The Chronicle of Higher Education:

This reading of the two Supreme Court cases as essentially identical would presumably be surprising to the justices of the court. Five Supreme Court justices participated in both Grutter and Fisher, yet four of them switched sides in the two cases. Justices Anthony M. Kennedy, Antonin Scalia, and Clarence Thomas dissented in Grutter, in part because universities were not made to demonstrate that race-neutral strategies were insufficient to produce racial diversity, yet those justices were in the majority in Fisher.

Meanwhile, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg switched in the other direction, from the majority in Grutter to the dissent in Fisher. Her dissent complained that the majority would push universities to adopt race-neutral strategies like Texas’ top 10-percent plan, which she viewed as disingenuous. (Justice Stephen G. Breyer, alone, was in the majority in both cases.)

Moreover, the government is green-lighting any and all diversity initiatives rather than giving actual guidance about how to survive the legal minefield that administrators now inhabit. As Roger Clegg put it at National Review Online:

The fact is that this guidance is designed not to help schools follow the law, but to push them to adopt dubious race-based policies that the Supreme Court has warned against, and that have prompted lawsuits in the past, but that the Obama administration and its political allies stubbornly support. The whole tone of the new guidance is to offer encouragement to schools that want to engage in racial and ethnic discrimination: The administration promises that it “will continue to be a resource” for such schools.

It is as if the FBI offered eager encouragement to state and local police that wanted to engage in racial profiling without violating the law. Whether such discrimination may sometimes be legally permissible or not, why should the federal government issue a document the tone of which is not a stern warning about the many legal pitfalls, but cheerful encouragement to the police to do as much of it as they can get away with? Why urge schools to get as close to the legal line as they can, when it is unnecessary and bad policy for them to approach it at all?

In short, the government not only pretends that the Supreme Court didn’t mean what it said, but is encouraging college officials in their massive resistance to yet another Supreme Court ruling on civil rights. These actions enable the type of “holistic” racial balancing that results in greater racial-achievement gaps than illegal quotas ever did. Racial preferences today, racial preferences tomorrow, racial preferences forever.

It would be comical if it weren’t so sad – and if it weren’t backed by the full force of the nation’s chief law enforcement officers.

Building Housing That Some People Can’t Afford Isn’t Racist

“Disparate impact” theory holds someone liable for discrimination for a race-neutral policy that statistically disadvantages a specific racial group — say, blacks score lower on a firefighter-promotion test than whites — even if that negative “impact” was neither foreseen nor intended. The application of this theory has been fraught with controversy, to say the least, but it comes up again and again, in contexts ranging from employment to education to voting.

While disparate impact claims have sometimes been sustained under the federal Fair Housing Act (which makes it unlawful to deny housing on the basis of race) since the 1970s, the Supreme Court has only recently agreed to decide whether these claims are lawful. Two years ago, the Court was about to hear such a case, Magner v. Gallagher, when the Justice Department, led by now-Labor Secretary Tom Perez, pressured the city of St. Paul, Minnesota to settle it. The same sort of political pressure is now being brought to bear on Mount Holly Township, New Jersey; supporters of disparate impact theory simply don’t think that it can survive legal scrutiny.

The current case involves a redevelopment plan for a blighted Mount Holly neighborhood (“the Gardens”) that would transform the neighborhood into mid-range single-family dwellings. (Thus far, the township has acquired 259 of 329 properties through various financial incentives, without yet resorting to eminent domain.) The Gardens’ residents sued, arguing that the redevelopment plan violated the FHA because a majority of them would not be able to afford the new homes.

The district court dismissed this argument, holding that the redevelopment plan affected Gardens residents equally, without regard to race, and was tied only to economic considerations. The court of appeals reversed that ruling, holding that the residents’ association had set out a case of discrimination under the theory of disparate impact because a majority of the affected residents were non-white.

Cato has now joined the Pacific Legal Foundation and four other public-interest organizations on an amicus brief arguing not only that disparate impact claims are impermissible under the text of the FHA, but that such claims force unconstitutional actions when applied to governments. Before putting race-neutral policies into effect, government agencies would have to determine whether a particular racial group would be disproportionately impacted and take steps to remedy that difference. By mandating an equality of ends — as opposed to an equality of opportunity — disparate impact liability encourages the adoption of discriminatory quota systems.

New Mexico Court Is Wrong: Government Must Treat People Equally, but Individuals Should Have Liberty to Speak, Associate, and Believe

On Thursday, the New Mexico Supreme Court ruled in Elane Photography v. Willcock that the First Amendment doesn’t protect a photographer’s right to decline to take pictures of a same-sex wedding against the requirements of the state’s Human Rights Act, which forbids discriminating against people on the basis of sexual orientation. This is a terrible result, for the freedom of speech and association, and for religious liberty. As I’ve argued before, even supporters of marriage equality (and equality generally) should not be blind to other violations of fundamental rights.

The New Mexico law is one of multiple state and federal “public accommodations” laws that prohibit private discrimination by companies that offer services to the public. These laws are antithetical to liberty and forbidden by the Constitution. The Supreme Court held in 1883’s Civil Rights Cases that the 14th Amendment – the provision that speaks to equal protection – doesn’t authorize Congress to legislate against discrimination by private citizens.

A hundred years later, however, the Court held that such power exists under the Commerce Clause – even where the business is confined to a single state. This is just one more instance of Commerce Clause abuse, something Cato has fought on numerous occasions, including the successful Commerce Clause challenge to Obamacare’s individual mandate.           

The legislation at issue in Elane Photography didn’t come from Congress, so the question of federal power doesn’t arise. But even if a state legislature has the authority to act in a specific area, that authority can’t be exercised in a manner that violates the constitutional rights of the those subject to it. Yet the New Mexico high court disagreed with the position we took in our amicus brief and held that compelling someone to engage in artistic photography somehow doesn’t violate the freedom of speech if they aren’t forced to broadcast a government-sponsored message (for more on the inadequacy of the court’s ruling see comments by Dale Carpenter and Hans Bader). 

Even if you agree with the court that New Mexico’s law doesn’t violate Elane Photography’s speech rights, however, it clearly violates the company’s freedom of association and freedom of contract – two rights which, while not explicitly named in the Constitution, are clearly implicit in our understanding of “liberty.” The right to freely associate and contract with others must include a negative right not to do so – or the right is meaningless. This isn’t a defense of bigoted business practices, but a defense of choice, and it applies across the board: I don’t like homophobia, or racism, or any other number of irrational or even deplorable attitudes, but as I said on 20/20 earlier this month, being a jerk isn’t illegal.

If a restaurant doesn’t like how you’re dressed, it has the right not to serve you. No shirt, no shoes, no service, no problem – or, at least that’s the way it should be. My property is my property and my time is my time. I have the right to sell or rent both to anyone I want – or not to, as the case may be. We don’t need a government forcing businesses to serve people because the market will do that for us: refusing customers – refusing to make a profit – over something as irrelevant as a customer’s skin color or sexual orientation is a losing business strategy. 

Unfortunately, the Supreme Court has been hostile to freedom of association and contract since the 1930s, notably in the 1984 case of Roberts v. U.S. Jaycees, where the Court upheld a law that required the Jaycees, a private self-help and leadership training group, to begin admitting women, over the membership’s objections. More recently, Christian Legal Society v Martinez, (in which Cato also filed a brief), the Court ruled that a Christian student group couldn’t restrict candidacy for leadership and ministerial positions to students who shared the group’s faith. (Accordingly, Democrats apparently have to admit Republicans, PETA has to admit meat-lovers, and so forth.) In these cases, the Supreme Court, like the New Mexico court, held that the government’s interest in equality and “non-discrimination” allows it to run roughshod over individual liberties.

While the last few terms at the Court have included numerous important victories for freedom – and we may be living what I like to call the Court’s “libertarian moment” – the Court’s protection of individual liberty is patchy. The rights of criminal suspects, the religious, property owners, businesses, and many others, are all occasionally sacrificed in the name of “progress”.

Liberty’s Big Day at SCOTUS

Today, the Court upheld the equal liberty and dignity of all individuals, regardless of sexual orientation with its ruling in United States v. Windsor. This represents a major victory for gay rights, of course, but more broadly vindicates a robust view of individual liberty as protected by the Constitution. It should be axiomatic that the federal government has to treat all people equally, that it has to accept the several states’ sovereign laws on marriage (and many other subjects), and today there were five votes at the Supreme Court for that proposition.

It is now clear that there was simply no valid reason to uphold DOMA Section 3, no reason to deny the equal protection of more than 1,000 federal laws. As Justice Kennedy wrote for the unified majority, “the principal purpose and the necessary effect of this law are to demean those persons who are in a lawful same-sex marriage.”

This is exactly the result we were hoping for. 

UPDATE:

The Court’s ruling in the Prop 8 case is weird, frustrating, and leaves great uncertainty in both the law and practical effect. It’s also wrong: to say that private parties can’t step in to defend a law when the state government declines to is to allow the executive to erase properly enacted laws and even state constitutional amendments simply by not defending them in court.

For practical purposes, those of us who support marriage equality can be heartened that Prop 8 has been struck down – but there will still be extensive litigation over whether California can only issue marriage licenses to the two couples who were the plaintiffs in Perry, to everyone in the federal district where the lawsuit originated, or in the entire state. The Supreme Court may have thought it was putting off the difficult issues for another day, but it may simply have complicated matters. While clothed in complicated, technical language, and surrounded by the unusual atmospherics of gay marriage, this ruling boils down to the Court’s shying away from the full implications of its other ruling today.

In short, Perry was a frustrating decision but doesn’t detract from the significant constitutional win in Windsor.