Making Justice RealThe Official Blog of the Legal Aid Society of the District of Columbia
Three Landmark Decisions from the U.S. Supreme Court
The U.S. Supreme Court issued a landmark decision this morning and two extremely important rulings yesterday that are relevant to Legal Aid’s clients and client community.
In the first, Obergefell v. Hodges, the Court held that states must recognize lawful same-sex marriages performed in other states. The 5-4 decision overturned an earlier Sixth Circuit decision holding that states that did not allow same sex marriages were not required to recognize the marriages of same-sex couples performed in states where such marriages are lawful. Justice Anthony Kennedy authored the majority opinion and was joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan.
In reaching its conclusion, the majority recognized that “the Court has long held the right to marry is protected by the Constitution” and “the history of marriage is one of both continuity and change” as society evolves. The Court also linked this case to earlier civil rights struggles, noting that “changed understandings of marriage are characteristic of a Nation where new dimensions of freedom become apparent to new generations, often through perspectives that begin in pleas or protests and then are considered in the political sphere and the judicial process.” Comparing the decision to Loving v. Virginia, the landmark 1967 case invalidating Virginia’s ban on interracial unions, the majority held that the Equal Protection and Due Process clauses require same-sex marriages to be recognized across state lines.
We at Legal Aid anticipate that the Court’s ruling today will positively impact the lives of low-income same-sex couples in our region and allow them both the dignity of recognition and access to a myriad of benefits previously beyond their reach.
Yesterday, in King v. Burwell, the Court upheld a key provision of the Affordable Care Act, finding that the law’s system of providing government subsidies to individuals who could not otherwise afford to purchase private health insurance policies in federally run exchanges was legal. The Court, in a 6-3 ruling, affirmed a ruling from the Internal Revenue Service that these subsidies should be available not only in states that have set up their own health care exchanges (including the District) but also in the thirty-plus states that decided to utilize the Federal exchange. Chief Justice John Roberts authored the majority opinion, with Justices Anthony Kennedy, Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan joining him.
We at Legal Aid are pleased that low and moderate income residents of all states can continue to gain greater access to affordable health insurance and improved quality of care. The District of Columbia has made great strides in ensuring that the vast majority of District residents have access to affordable health insurance. An adverse decision by the Court would not have directly harmed the District’s exchange. However, for our neighbors in Virginia and the other states with federally run exchanges, the results would have been devastating. According to The Washington Post, had the Supreme Court ruled the other way, about 64 million individuals in these states would have lost about $1.7 billion worth of subsidies.
In the second historic case decided yesterday, Texas v. Inclusive Communities Project, the Court held 5-4 that government housing policies that have a disparate impact on minorities are cognizable under the Fair Housing Act.
Lower courts had been split on whether evidence of intentional discrimination was required under the law. The case was brought by a Texas nonprofit called the Inclusive Communities Project (ICP), which argued that between 1995 and 2009 the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs (TDHCA) had disproportionately given affordable-housing tax credits to developments in poor minority neighborhoods, effectively perpetuating historic racial divisions in housing there. ICP prevailed at the federal district and appeals court levels, and TDHCA appealed to the Supreme Court.
Justice Anthony Kennedy authored the majority opinion, writing: “[r]ecognition of disparate impact liability under the FHA also plays a role in uncovering discriminatory intent: It permits plaintiffs to counteract unconscious prejudices and disguised animus that escape easy classification as disparate treatment.” He was joined in the opinion by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan.
This decision is an important victory that will allow housing advocates around the country to challenge facially-neutral policies that have a disparate impact on persons of color, individuals with limited English proficiency, families with children, or individuals with disabilities.