The Supreme Court agreed Friday to consider whether the New York Attorney General's Office has the power to investigate whether some national banks engaged in discriminatory mortgage lending in the state.
Two lower courts ruled that only federal regulators can conduct such an investigation, and that New York could not enforce its fair-lending laws against national banks.
The New York Attorney General's Office, then under the helm of Eliot Spitzer, began investigating banks' residential real estate lending practices in 2005, saying mortgage data showed that black and Hispanic borrowers were receiving a larger percentage of high-interest home loans than their white counterparts. Mr. Spitzer asked several companies, including Wells Fargo & Co., JPMorgan Chase & Co., and Citigroup Inc., to voluntarily produce nonpublic information about their lending practices in New York. In response, the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency and The Clearing House Association LLC, a consortium of national banks, sued to block Mr. Spitzer's investigation.
A federal district judge barred the Attorney General's Office from demanding to see the companies' books or from moving forward with any type of enforcement action.
An appellate court affirmed that ruling.
The banks and the federal government prevailed because of a 2004 change in OCC policy that made it very difficult for state authorities to enforce state laws against national banks. Mr. Spitzer said that the OCC's bid to block his investigation was shameful, and that the agency's policy was arbitrary and exceeded its rule-making powers. He said the New York investigation was needed, because the federal government was not acting aggressively to investigate racially discriminatory lending practices. The lower courts deferred to the OCC, saying its policy determinations were permissible. The Supreme Court could hear oral arguments in April.