WASHINGTON — The U.S. Supreme Court agreed Friday to consider whether the New York attorney general's office has the power to investigate whether some national banks have engaged in discriminatory mortgage lending in the state.
Two lower courts ruled that only federal regulators have the power to conduct such an investigation. New York, the courts said, couldn't enforce its state fair-lending laws against national banks.
The New York attorney general's office, then under the helm of Eliot Spitzer, began investigating the banks' residential real-estate lending practices in 2005, claiming that mortgage data showed that black and Hispanic borrowers received a larger percentage of high-interest home loans than white borrowers.
Spitzer asked several banks, including Wells Fargo & Co., J.P. Morgan Chase & Co. and Citigroup Inc., to voluntarily produce non-public information about their mortgage-lending practices in New York.
In response, the federal Office of the Comptroller of the Currency and the Clearing House Association, a consortium of national banks, each sued to block Spitzer's investigation.
A federal trial judge barred the New York attorney general's office from demanding to see the banks' books or from moving forward with any type of enforcement action. A federal appeals court affirmed the trial judge's ruling.
The banks and the federal government prevailed in court thanks to a 2004 change in OCC policy that made it very difficult for state authorities to enforce state laws against national banks.
Spitzer, who said the OCC's bid to block his investigation was shameful, argued that the agency's policy was arbitrary and exceeded its rule-making powers. He said the state's probe was needed because the federal government weren't acting aggressively to investigate racially discriminatory lending practices.
The lower courts, however, deferred to the OCC, saying the agency's policy determinations were permissible.
The Supreme Court could hear oral arguments in the case in April.
The case is Cuomo v. Clearing House Association, 08-453.