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by LINDA GREENHOUSE
(c) 1995 N.Y. Times News Service, 05/16/95
WASHINGTON - The Supreme Court ruled Monday that municipalities may not use single-family zoning to bar group homes for disabled people, including recovering alcoholics and drug addicts, by enforcing occupancy limits in a discriminatory way.
In a 6-3 decision resolving a dispute over the application of the Fair Housing Act, the court said communities may set occupancy limits, space requirements and other restrictions on houses occupied by unrelated people, like group homes, but only if they also apply to everyone else living in the area.
The decision may make it easier for group homes to overcome local barriers to locating in residential neighborhoods, although the court left unresolved important questions about how the Fair Housing Act should be applied.
Congress passed the Fair Housing Act in 1968 to bar discrimination in housing on the basis of race and amended it in 1988 to extend its coverage to people with disabilities. The law now makes it illegal to refuse to make "reasonable accommodations in rules, policies, practices or services" to disabled renters or buyers, a group defined as including those suffering from alcoholism and drug addiction.
At the same time, the amended law gave localities an exemption for any "reasonable" restrictions on the "number of occupants permitted to occupy a dwelling."
That wording raised the question of whether the new nondiscrimination requirement had any application in the single-family residential zones that dominate much of the suburban landscape. The lower federal courts had provided different answers.
Writing for the court Monday, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said the exemption did not permit cities to close their single-family zones to group homes. Rather, she said, the restrictions that the Fair Housing Act exempted were only those that "apply uniformly to ALL residents of ALL dwelling units."
The decision, which endorsed the Clinton administration's view of the Fair Housing Act, rejected an appeal by the city of Edmonds, Wash., of a ruling last year by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, in San Francisco.
In its single-family zone, Edmonds placed no limit on the number of related people who could share a house, but limited the number of unrelated people to five.
When a national organization called Oxford House rented a house in the area and opened a group home for 10 to 12 recovering alcoholics and addicts, the city brought criminal charges and sought a court declaration that its zoning provision was exempt from the Fair Housing Act.
The city initially won in U.S. District Court in Seattle before losing in the appeals court. While upholding the 9th Circuit, the Supreme Court's ruling Monday in City of Edmonds vs. Oxford House, No. 94-23, did not bring the case to an end.
Now that the justices have determined that Edmonds is not exempt from the Fair Housing Act, the lower courts must decide whether the city's actions violated the act.
Justice Ginsburg stressed throughout her opinion that the question for the court was the narrow one of deciphering the meaning of the act's exemption, noting that the Fair Housing Act, at the most, requires only that accommodations to the handcapped be "reasonable." The opinion Monday did not attempt to define what a "reasonable" accommodation might be.
Nonetheless, as the court's first opportunity to consider the amended Fair Housing Act, the case attracted widespread attention from groups representing the retarded and the elderly, as well as organizations involved with alcoholism and drug abuse.
A brief from the American Planning Association said a broadly interpreted exemption for single family zones would "turn back the clock on 20 years of court decisions that have expanded housing opportunities for people with disabilities."
On the other hand, the city argued strenuously that the long history of single-family zoning and the special constitutional status the Supreme Court has accorded to the family made it reasonable to apply special limits in such zones.
The Pacific Legal Foundation, a public interest law firm that is sometimes influential with the court's conservatives, raised the stakes in the case by arguing on the city's behalf in a friend-of- the-court brief that the Fair Housing Act as interpreted by the appeals court went beyond the power of Congress.
The brief used language similar to the analysis the court applied last month in deciding that a federal ban on possessing guns near schools exceeded the power of Congress to regulate commerce.
"The justification of "commerce' cannot be bootstrapped into every realm of human endeavor that may affect commerce in order to justify congressional involvement," the brief said.
The three Justices who dissented Monday - Clarence Thomas, Antonin Scalia, and Anthony M. Kennedy - did not fully embrace that analysis. But they did argue, in a dissenting opinion by Thomas, that because land use regulation "is one of the historic powers of the states," the Fair Housing Act exemption for local occupancy restrictions should be read broadly and not narrowly as the majority read it Monday.
"The plain words of the statute" make no reference to the health and safety considerations that the majority adopted as the only justification for occupancy limits, Thomas said.
Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist joined the majority opinion, as did Justices John Paul Stevens, Sandra Day O'Connor, David H. Souter and Stephen G. Breyer.
Oxford House, Inc., a nonprofit corporation based in Silver Spring, Md., has established 556 group homes in 36 states for recovering alcoholics and drug addicts.
In New York and New Jersey the Supreme Court's decision should have little impact, legal experts say, because the highest courts in those state have invalidated town ordinances limiting the number of unrelated people who can live in a house in a single-family zone.
In New York, for instance, the Court of Appeals, the state's highest court, twice struck down local laws placing such caps on homes, said Robert L. Schonfeld, a lawyer in Garden City, N.Y., who has tried housing cases involving the mentally disabled. New Jersey's highest court made a similar finding in 1979, he said.
These were among the court's other decisions Monday as the justices returned from their final recess to begin a six- or seven-week stretch drive to the end of the term:
CHALLENGES TO JURORS
Over an angry dissent by Stevens and Breyer, the court issued an unsigned opinion clarifying procedures for evaluating whether a lawyer using a peremptory challenge to remove a potential juror was motivated by bias.
The decision, Purkett vs. Elem, No. 94-802, overturned a ruling by the federal appeals court in St. Louis that a Missouri prosecutor had given a "pretextual" reason for removing a black juror from the trial of a black man charged with robbery. The prosecutor said the juror's long hair and mustache "look suspicious to me."
In a landmark 1986 decision, Batson vs. Kentucky, the Supreme Court ruled that the Constitution barred the removal of jurors for reasons of race.
If race appears to be the reason for a peremptory challenge, the court said, the lawyer making the challenge must provide a "race- neutral" explanation, which the trial judge must evaluate in deciding whether the challenge is valid.
The unsigned opinion Monday said that the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit had erred in requiring the prosecutor's explanation to be not just neutral at that point in the inquiry but "plausible."
Any seemingly nondiscriminatory reason is sufficient to carry the inquiry forward to the final stage, at which the judge must evaluate the explanation and can reject any that is "implausible or fantastic."
In their dissent, Stevens and Breyer said this procedure turned the inquiry required by the Batson decision into a "meaningless charade" in which "silly, fantastic, and implausible explanations" had to be tolerated instead of being rejected out of hand.
The court took the unusual step of overturning one of its own precedents, a 1955 ruling that made a federal law on false statements apply to statements made in court and to Congress.
The false statement law, which dates to 1934 and is usually referred to as Section 1001, is used almost exclusively to prosecute false statements made to executive branch agencies despite the 1955 ruling, United States vs. Bramblett, which broadened its coverage.
Many lower courts have carved out an exception making the law inapplicable to statements made in court.
Writing for the court Monday, Stevens said the 1955 decision was based on a "basic error" in interpreting the false statement law, which refers to "any department or agency of the United States."
In its common meaning, that phrase refers to executive branch agencies and not Congress or the courts, Stevens said.
The decision Monday, Hubbard vs. U.S., No. 94-172, overturned a conviction for lying to a federal bankruptcy court. Justices Breyer and Ginsburg joined Stevens' full opinion. Thomas joined most of it, while Scalia and Kennedy joined in the result. Rehnquist and Justices O'Connor and Souter dissented.
Because the law was used so infrequently outside the executive branch, the decision was interesting principally for the court's debate over adherence to precedent.
Among the few recent Section 1001 prosecutions for false statements to Congress were those of Oliver North and John Poindexter in cases growing out of their testimony before Congress on the Iran-Contra affair.
Federal laws against perjury and obstruction of justice are available in nearly any case in which a Section 1001 prosecution can be brought.
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