Supreme Court voids key part of Voting Rights Act

Decision marks end of major civil rights-era reform

In a decision that returns power to states, a split U.S. Supreme Court struck down parts of the landmark 1965 Voting Rights Act, which was enacted to stop Jim Crow-era practices that hindered blacks from voting.

Shelby County, Ala., challenged the constitutionality of a provision that requires all or parts of 16 states, mostly in the South, to receive approval from the Justice Department or a federal court before making changes to election laws and procedures.

The mostly white suburban county, near Birmingham, claims the requirement to get permission from the federal government, known as “preclearance,” is a violation of state sovereignty.
Read the Supreme Court’s opinion
A clearly perturbed and resolute Attorney General Eric Holder, who was named in the lawsuit, called the ruling “a serious and unnecessary setback.”
In a prepared statement delivered to media, he argued that voting discrimination has “not been consigned to history.”
He acknowledged that the country “has changed for the better since 1965,” but he insisted “the destination that we seek has not yet been reached.”
Holder vowed the Justice Department “will not hesitate to take swift enforcement action using every legal tool that remains to us against any jurisdiction that seeks to take advantage of the Supreme Court’s ruling by hindering eligible citizens’ full and free exercise of the franchise.”
The decision drew outrage from leaders of the NAACP, the nation’s oldest civil rights organization. Roslyn M. Brock, chairman of the NAACP national board of directors, said it “has the potential to set voting rights back more than 50 years.”
NAACP President and CEO Benjamin Todd Jealous, called the ruling “outrageous,” charging it “put politics over decades of precedent and the rights of voters.”
“Congress must resurrect its bipartisan efforts from 2006 to ensure that the federal government has the power to preemptively strike racially discriminatory voting laws,” he said. “Without that power, we are more vulnerable to the flood of attacks we have seen in recent years.”
Punishing the past
In the 5-4 ruling, the majority justices essentially declared that states cannot be perpetually punished for past wrongs.
“The Fifteenth Amendment commands that the right to vote shall not be denied or abridged on account of race or color, and it gives Congress the power to enforce that command. The amendment is not designed to punish for the past; its purpose is to ensure a better future,” Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. wrote for the majority.
Roberts was joined by Justices Anthony Kennedy, Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito.
In the majority opinion, Roberts wrote that the law is out of date, relying on 40-year-old data.
“Our country has changed, and while any racial discrimination in voting is too much, Congress must ensure that the legislation it passes to remedy that problem speaks to current conditions,” he wrote.
Congress renewed the law for a fourth time, in 2006, extending it through 2031.
However, Supreme Court observer Amy Howe, who writes for the Bloomberg Law SCOTUSblog, notes that “many states and local governments have come to resent the time and cost associated with the preclearance process, not to mention what they regard as the indignity of having to get permission from Washington even for something as simple as changing the location of a polling place.”
The provision, Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, applies to Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia. It also covers certain counties in California, Florida, New York, North Carolina and South Dakota, and some local jurisdictions in Michigan.
In dissent, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote that the issue should be left up to Congress to decide.
“The question this case presents is who decides whether, as currently operative, Section 5 remains justifiable, this Court, or a Congress charged with the obligation to enforce the post-Civil War Amendments ‘by appropriate legislation,’ she wrote. “With overwhelming support in both Houses, Congress concluded that, for two prime reasons, Section 5 should continue in force, unabated.”
Ginsberg was joined by Justices Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan.
Obama calls on Congress to act
Jon Greenbaum, chief counsel of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, called the decision “a blow to democracy.”
“The Supreme Court has effectively gutted one of the nation’s most important and effective civil rights laws,” he said. “Minority voters in places with a record of discrimination are now at greater risk of being disenfranchised than they have been in decades.”
Greenbaum argued that jurisdictions “will be able to enact policies which prevent minorities from voting, and the only recourse these citizens will have will be expensive and time-consuming litigation.”
President Obama, in a statement, called the decision a “setback” and called on Congress “to pass legislation to ensure every American has equal access to the polls.”
“I am deeply disappointed with the Supreme Court’s decision today,” he said. “For nearly 50 years, the Voting Rights Act – enacted and repeatedly renewed by wide bipartisan majorities in Congress – has helped secure the right to vote for millions of Americans. Today’s decision invalidating one of its core provisions upsets decades of well-established practices that help make sure voting is fair, especially in places where voting discrimination has been historically prevalent.”
Obama said then nation “has made a great deal of progress towards guaranteeing every American the right to vote.”
“But, as the Supreme Court recognized, voting discrimination still exists,” he said. “And while today’s decision is a setback, it doesn’t represent the end of our efforts to end voting discrimination.”
Robert wrote, however, that while “voting discrimination still exists,” the “question is whether the Act’s extraordinary measures, including its disparate treatment of the States, continue to satisfy constitutional requirements.”
“As we put it a short time ago, ‘the Act imposes current burdens and must be justified by current needs,’” the chief justice said.