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St. Paul withdraws Supreme Court appeal on key housing-code case

In an unusual legal maneuver, the city withdrew its plan to appeal, fearing that a win actually could harm other civil rights housing efforts.

In an unusual legal maneuver, the city of St. Paul has withdrawn its plan to appeal a ruling in a housing code case to the U.S. Supreme Court, fearing that if it would win, the precedent could be harmful to civil rights housing efforts around the country.

But the city will go ahead with a trial on the case in a federal court trial.

The case involves a lawsuit — Magner vs. Gallagher — filed against city officials by some landlords of low-income housing who claim the city conducted illegal sweeps to look for housing code violations even when there were no complaints from residents. Those sweeps often resulted in the need for major renovations.

But the landlords alleged that those sweeps, involving rental properties inhabited mostly by low-income and mainly African-American renters, had a negative impact on minorities and violated the Fair Housing Act, even if it was not intentional.

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A federal judge sided with the city on that issue of the case, saying that even if the enforcement policies did fall more heavily upon African-American tenants, the judge declared, the city had legitimate reasons for its approach, according to an analysis of the case on a Bloomberg Law-sponsored SCOTUS blog.

The 8th Circuit Court of Appeals, though, sided with the landlords, and the U.S. Supreme Court was scheduled to hear the issue Feb. 29.

But according to a statement from the city, St. Paul officials and many national civil rights groups realized that a city win on that issue in the Supreme Court might bring an unintentional outcome:

“…[a win by the city could] completely eliminate ‘disparate impact’ civil rights enforcement, including under the Fair Housing Act and the Equal Credit Opportunity Act. This would undercut important and necessary civil rights cases throughout the nation. The risk of such an unfortunate outcome is the primary reason the city has asked the Supreme Court to dismiss the petition.”

City officials contend that their disputed sweeps constituted the “city’s vigorous enforcement of the city’s housing code.”

The city’s efforts were focused on eliminating conditions such as rodent infestation, missing dead bolt locks, inoperable smoke detectors, poor sanitation, and inadequate heat. While Saint Paul likely would have won in the United States Supreme Court, a victory could substantially undermine important civil rights enforcement throughout the nation. The city fully expects to win the case later at trial.

But St. Paul City Attorney Sara Grewing, formerly Mayor Chris Coleman’s chief of staff, said the city’s decision to pull out of the Supreme Court process should not be seen as a victory for the landlords.

“…[the decision] instead highlights the city’s belief that it will be successful in defending its code enforcement actions in any court. The city is confident we will achieve the same result in trial that we would have through the completion of the appeal. We look forward to cross-examining these landlords in front of a jury and we will try the case to win — an outcome the city expects.”

The case has become noteworthy nationally among those who follow such things, the SCOTUS blog says:

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The case had drawn a significant amount of interest among civil rights groups, arguing that disparate-impact claims were important to maintaining equality in access to housing. Twelve states had also joined in supporting the property owners. Some business organizations and conservative legal advocacy groups had entered the case to support St. Paul officials.

Two Cities blog, which covers Minneapolis and St. Paul City Halls, is made possible in part by grants from The Saint Paul Foundation and the Carolyn Foundation.