Supreme Court Strikes Down Key Part of Voting Rights ActS

In a "huge defeat" for civil rights, a key portion of the Voting Rights Act was ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court today, leaving congress to fix the law. And we all know how efficiently congress works!

The 5-4 ruling, split along liberal-conservative lines, in the case of Shelby County vs. Holder, struck down Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act, and sent interns sprinting from the courthouse:

Run, intern, run! #SCOTUS https://t.co/KWjh8FPCoB

— Julie Eckert (@Julie_Eckert) June 25, 2013

The upshot, once the interns' dust had cleared: The VRA's contentious Section 5, which forbids certain states (mostly, surprise! Southern states) from changing voting procedures without permission from a federal court or the Justice Department, remains intact—but Section 4, which determines the formula by which those states are are named, does not.

The VRA was initially passed in 1965 to outlaw discriminatory voting—procedures like, for example, literacy tests, that were used in racist districts, mostly southern, to prevent black people from voting. One component of the VRA, Section 5, requires certain districts to obtain "preclearance" from the federal government before changing its voting procedures. (In one recent example, a Texas county was prevented from moving its polling place to a historically segregated country club.) Those districts are determined by a formula set out in Section 4, based on historical discrimination and voter registration and turnout figures.

But Chief Justice John Roberts argues in the majority opinion that the situation in Shelby County—and by extension, the rest of the country—has "changed dramatically" with respect to voting discrimination, and when Congress re-authorized the VRA in 2006, it shouldn't have used the old formula last changed in 1975. Section 4, the majority concludes, no longer "satisf[ies] constitutional requirements," even if, as Roberts acknowledges, "voting discrimination still exists."

It's a sneaky ruling. While it doesn't touch the actual mechanism of "preclerance," i.e., Section 5, without a formula that section unenforceable. And the Supreme Court has asked the U.S. Congress to come up with a new formula. So... good luck with that.

Justice Ginsburg, joined by the court's liberal wing, released a caustic dissent:

Throwing out preclearance when it has worked and is continuing to work to stop discriminatory changes is like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet. [...]

The sad irony of today’s decision lies in its utter failure to grasp why the VRA has proven effective. The Court appears to believe that the VRA’s success in eliminating the specific devices extant in 1965 means that preclear­ ance is no longer needed. Ante, at 21–22, 23–24. With that belief, and the argument derived from it, history repeats itself. The same assumption—that the problem could be solved when particular methods of voting discrim­ ination are identified and eliminated—was indulged and proved wrong repeatedly prior to the VRA’s enactment. Unlike prior statutes, which singled out particular tests or devices, the VRA is grounded in Congress’ recognition of the “variety and persistence” of measures designed to impair minority voting rights. Katzenbach, 383 U. S., at 311; supra, at 2. In truth, the evolution of voting discrim­ ination into more subtle second-generation barriers is powerful evidence that a remedy as effective as preclear­ ance remains vital to protect minority voting rights and prevent backsliding.

Beyond question, the VRA is no ordinary legislation. It is extraordinary because Congress embarked on a mission long delayed and of extraordinary importance: to realize the purpose and promise of the Fifteenth Amendment. For a half century, a concerted effort has been made to end racial discrimination in voting. Thanks to the Voting Rights Act, progress once the subject of a dream has been achieved and continues to be made.