How St. Paul enforces housing codes is the key issue in a suit that has traveled a tortuous legal road to the U.S. Supreme Court and back -- and raised the ire of Republican congressional leaders along the way.

A dozen landlords claim the city is overly aggressive in enforcing codes, which they say costs them excessively, shutters their properties and forces out low-income and minority renters.

St. Paul counters that the property owners are slumlords who are taking advantage of down-on-their-luck tenants.

Four GOP congressmen pushed the lawsuit into prominence last week with claims -- denied by St. Paul and the federal government -- of legal horse-trading at the U.S. Department of Justice.

St. Paul had appealed the case to the U.S. Supreme Court, but then dropped the appeal for fear that the high court, dominated by conservatives, would use the case to gut federal fair housing laws.

Now the case awaits action in the St. Paul courtroom of U.S. Magistrate Steven Rau. A settlement conference is set for Oct. 26, but the case is expected to eventually go to trial in front of Judge Michael Davis.

The Republicans accused the Justice Department of encouraging St. Paul to drop the high court appeal, in exchange for staying out of two housing-related federal suits against the city.

Former Vice President Walter Mondale, who authored the Fair Housing Act when he was in the Senate, said that he called St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman after University of Minnesota law professor Myron Orfield "recommended the city withdraw and go to trial, which is what they've done."

City Attorney Sara Grewing has said she believes the city will prevail at trial, and Orfield said there is "very little chance" St. Paul will lose the lawsuit.

"These are slumlords. Cities should be able to do housing inspections in really bad neighborhoods," Orfield said.

Grewing said in a written statement that the city's litigation decisions are part of a "strong commitment to civil rights and economic justice, including safe, sanitary rental housing."

'A reasonable standard'

The landlords claim that St. Paul's "strict" housing code enforcement has a "disparate impact" on black residents, "because compliance with the housing code increases the costs of low-income housing and African-Americans make up a disproportionate percentage of low-income tenants."

"It really comes down to what is a reasonable maintenance standard," said John Shoemaker, lawyer for the landlords. He said that for more than a decade the city has required landlords to meet a higher standard than the one required by the state.

"They can call my clients slumlords all day long and they weren't," Shoemaker said. "My clients continue to rent to poor mothers with children."

One of the plaintiffs' complaints is that the city moved in the early 2000s from a complaint-based system to one of active sweeps. Rather than wait for a neighbor to call, inspectors would go to buildings and initiate actions such as violations or condemnations.

In its memo seeking to dismiss the case, the city said the landlords failed to prove that St. Paul moved more aggressively against them because their tenants are members of a protected class.

St. Paul also said the landlords failed to provide data showing the impact of city policy on minorities in the protected class. For example, one landlord claimed illegal code enforcement at an unoccupied apartment and another apartment with a white tenant and a tenant whose race he couldn't recall.

The landlords also "concede that many of their housing code violations were in fact valid due to the condition of their properties," the city memo said.

Long-running battle

The lawsuit has a long and unusual history -- even by legal standards.

U.S. District Judge Joan Ericksen in December 2008 ruled in favor of the city, throwing out the lawsuit. Then a three-judge panel of the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed her and reinstated the lawsuit.

But the entire circuit court heard the lawsuit and ruled 6 to 5 that the U.S. Supreme Court should look at the case.

The Supreme Court took the case. But then the city decided to drop the appeal.

Shoemaker said he wasn't concerned with election-year politics. He is, however, watching to see whether the nation's high court takes up a New Jersey case that he says raises similar issues.

If it does, Shoemaker said he'll push to postpone the Minnesota trial until that case is decided.

Rochelle Olson • 651-925-5035 Twitter: @rochelleolson