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The Court Watch

February 19, 2002 at 12:00 AM EDT


RAY SUAREZ: The Supreme Court heard arguments today in a housing eviction case from California. At issue: Can entire families be evicted from public housing projects for the drug use of one member? For more on today’s proceedings, we’re joined by NewsHour regular Jan Crawford Greenburg, Supreme Court reporter for the Chicago Tribune. And give us a little history of the case. Where did this all begin?

JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG, Chicago Tribune: Well, it started with a federal law that requires every public housing agency across the country to include in their leases with the public housing residents, a “no drugs” clause. And this federal law says that the leases must specifically say that a tenant will be evicted from public housing if the tenant or a member of his household, a guest or someone else under his control, a very broad group of people, engages in any drug-related criminal activity.

Now, after that law took effect, the Department of Housing and Urban Development passed a series of regulations designed to implement that. And HUD took the position that tenants could be evicted regardless of whether or not they knew of the illicit drug activity. And then the local public housing authorities began to change their leases to reflect the position that, as you referred to it, the zero tolerance position. In case came about in 1997 when the Oakland Public Housing Authority moved to evict four tenants, four elderly tenants, four tenants who had lived in public housing for a very long time but whose grandchildren, in one case daughter, and in another case caretaker, had been engaged in illegal drug use.

RAY SUAREZ: None of the four holders of the leases themselves were accused of any drug activity.

JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: No, just their relatives or, in the case of an elderly disabled man, his caretaker. And in each of these cases, again as reflecting lease terms, the drug use was not inside the apartment. But under the regulations, it didn’t matter. The drug use could be on or off the premises. In one case a daughter was found about three blocks away with cocaine. In two cases, grandsons were found smoking marijuana in the parking lot. And then in the case involving the disabled man, his caretaker was found with a crack pipe inside of her jacket.

RAY SUAREZ: So in today’s Supreme Court hearing, who took up the argument in favor of the law? Was it the Oakland Public Housing Authority or the federal government that originated this?

JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: That’s right. Both did. Right. And the way this case actually got there was that after the local housing authority in Oakland moved to evict these tenants, they turned around and sued in federal court. They brought a civil lawsuit and they said you can’t evict us. This is unconstitutional. We had no knowledge of this drug use. It’s illegal. So that worked its way up through the lower courts and a federal appeals court in California sided with the tenants. So actually today the case got to the Supreme Court because the Bush Administration and the Oakland Public Housing Authority asked the court to review that decision.

RAY SUAREZ: So what arguments did Oakland and the federal government bring to bear there today’s hearing?

JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: Well, they stressed that congress passed this law to give local public housing authorities wide discretion and latitude to eradicate a terrible drug inflicted disaster in public housing, where people are essentially prisoners of their own homes. They can’t leave their apartments because of violence and drug use. So they emphasize that Congress intended this zero tolerance policy because of the serious drug problems in public housing. And so they stress that the Court was wrong when it said Congress didn’t intend that result, the lower court, and that surely Congress had meant for the Public Housing Authorities to have this widespread discretion.

RAY SUAREZ: So their point was not that any of these elderly tenants could have, in fact, controlled the behavior of their family members, but that their punishment was meant to be an example to other public housing tenants?

JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: Well, yeah, in a way. They said that the law, and the way that Congress intended it and some of the Justices picked up on this point today, for example Justice Scalia said look, these tenants signed leases when all these regulations took effect and when the leases changed and they acknowledged that if there is any drug use in their apartment or by people under their control outside their apartment, they can be evicted.

The tenants knew that. They have a responsibility, as Justice Scalia said and suggested today, they have a responsibility to make sure that no one comes into their apartment with drugs and that members of their family don’t engage in drug use if they’re living in that public housing unit. And several of the other Justices seemed to suggest that that point really resonated with them because the statute doesn’t suggest, it doesn’t make any mention of the fact that the tenants have to know about the drug use.

It flatly says you can be evicted for drug use, period. There is no additional sentence that says, “drug use that you knew about.” So they suggested that the language of the law is clear, and that Congress intended this result and that’s the result that happened, and that the tenants have a responsibility to make sure that drug use is not occurring.

RAY SUAREZ: So how did the attorney for the tenants do in argument?

JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: Well, he argued, and he made a very broad argument, that these evictions not only were contrary to what Congress intended because he said Congress, instead, meant for the evictions to occur on several serious violations. So this was just so out there, he said, there was just no way Congress intended this result. And furthermore, it’s unconstitutional. You just can’t just punish people, like these elderly tenants, for something that they didn’t do. And that’s what these eviction were. They were punishment, they were punishing the tenants for behavior they were in no way a part of or had no control over.

RAY SUAREZ: Did the Justices try to tease out from either sets of lawyers or was it part of the argument, that there is a different level of responsibility among these public housing tenants because they live in government-subsidized, government-owned housing?

JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: That came up in a slightly different way. The Chief Justice actually made this point, but so did some of the other justices, that this is not a right to live in public housing. It’s a benefit. This is government property. And if we want to say in a lease that there is no drug use and it’s zero tolerance, that’s just a condition of being able to use government property. And the lawyer for the Bush Administration said that the public housing agencies aren’t getting any benefit by evicting these people. They’re just going to turn around and rent the unit to a law-abiding, or at least someone with law-abiding members of their household living there.

RAY SUAREZ: Now if this law is upheld by the Supreme Court, could this have effect on other drug laws that involve non… punishment for people who didn’t necessarily commit the crime, forfeiture laws and seizure laws?

JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: No, I don’t think so. I think this case is pretty targeted to the specific statute at issue and what Congress intended when it passed that statute. That came up today. That came up in the court. And several of the Justices made the point that this is different than those examples that you give because this is not the tenant’s property. It’s not like the government’s coming in and getting a car that somebody had because there was, you know, drug use. It was being used to run drugs.

This is government property. It’s a little different scenario. One point the Justice made today, Justice Thomas asked a question today that I thought was interesting and suggests where he may be going with this. He asked the lawyer for the public housing authority how significant was the problem of drug use. “Very significant,” the lawyer said.

I think Justice Thomas where he may be going with that, where he has been in several other cases involving crime in poor neighborhoods and inner city neighborhoods. He has been much more willing to let the government come in and, as he puts it, try to protect the rights of the people, the innocent people who are living there.

RAY SUAREZ: Jan Crawford Greenburg, thanks a lot.