The Supreme Court Tuesday struck down a key part of the Voting Rights Act, ruling unconstitutional a provision of the landmark civil rights legislation used to promote the political power of minority voters across large swaths of the southern United States for nearly four decades.
In a 5-4 ruling that split the court along ideological lines, the court ended a requirement that some or all areas in 15 states get advance approval from the Justice Department or a panel of federal judges for all changes to voting laws, procedures and even polling place locations.Continue Reading
POLITICO reports from Supreme Court
The court’s conservative majority said that when Congress reauthorized the law in 2006 it did not have sufficient basis to re-adopt a formula that is essentially the same as the one used when the law was first passed in 1965.
”Congress — if it is to divide the States — must identify those jurisdictions to be singled out on a basis that makes sense in light of current conditions. It cannot rely simply on the past,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote. “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.”
Lawmakers “reenacted a formula based on 40-year-old facts, having no logical relationship to the present day,” Roberts wrote. Despite “thousands of pages of evidence” Congress accumulated in 2006, “we cannot pretend that we are reviewing an updated statute or try our hand at updating the statute ourselves, based on the new record compiled by Congress.”
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, writing for the court’s three other liberals, complained that the court’s majority overstepped its bounds by failing to defer to Congress’s judgment that the preclearance rule was still needed.
Ginsburg began reading her dissent from the bench by noting there was agreement among the justices that race-based voting discrimination “still exists, no one doubts that” and that Congress had taken “extraordinary measures to meet the problem.”
“Beyond those two points, the court divides sharply,” she said.
Congress concluded that continuing the requirement “would facilitate completion of the impressive gains thus far made [and] guard against backsliding,” Ginsburg wrote. “Those assessments were well within Congress’ province to make and should elicit this Court’s unstinting approbation.”
Ginsburg argued that the majority was trying to undo preclearance in part because it has been so successful at preventing discriminatory practices in the covered areas.
“The number of discriminatory changes blocked or deterred by the preclearance requirement suggests that the state of voting rights in the covered jurisdictions would have been significantly different absent this remedy,” she wrote.
Ginsburg pointed to “second generation barriers” posed to minorities who want to vote — “methods more subtle” than the ones used in 1965 — including racial gerrymandering, redrawing legislative districts to segregate races, and at-large voting in lieu of district-by-district contests in cities with large black populations.
Roberts argued that Congress essentially punted in 2006, finding it politically inconvenient to tinker with a formula that sweeps in most states in the deep South as well as Alaska, Arizona, parts of New York City, and various other counties and towns.
“We are not ignoring the record; we are simply recognizing that it played no role in shaping the statutory formula before us today,” the chief justice wrote. “There is no valid reason to insulate the coverage formula from review merely because it was previously enacted 40 years ago….Today’s statistics tell an entirely different story.”