Supreme Court strikes down part of Voting Rights Act
The justices said in 5-4 vote that the law Congress most recently renewed in 2006 relies on 40-year-old data that does not reflect racial progress and changes in U.S. society.
By James Warren / NEW YORK DAILY NEWS
WASHINGTON—The Supreme Court threw out key elements of the Voting Rights Act Tuesday, telling Congress to revise the critical formula by which one determines if local voting laws are illegal.
The 5-4 decision leaves in distinct limbo the historic 1965 law that opened the voting booth to millions of mostly African-Americans voters who had been shafted, even as it maintains its ruling “in no way affects the permanent, nationwide ban on racial discrimination in voting.”
The ruling means that even as the court keeps in place the theoretically critical section of the law, Section 5, the section would seem to have little practical impact now unless Congress will pass a new provision making clear which states and localities it would actually cover.
Writing for the majority, Chief Justice John Roberts said, “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 problems speaks to currents conditions.”
Somewhat predictably, Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy, Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito joined Roberts. The minority consisted by Justice Stephen Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor.
President Obama, in a statement Tuesday, said he was “deeply disappointed” with the decision and called on Congress to pass new legislation to guarantee voting rights.
“As a nation, we’ve made a great deal of progress towards guaranteeing every American the right to vote. But, as the Supreme Court recognized, voting discrimination still exists,” Obama said. “And while today’s decision is a setback, it doesn’t represent the end of our efforts to end voting discrimination.”
The 1965 Voting Rights act was a major achievement by President Lyndon B. Johnson and came amid clear evidence of rampant attempts to keep blacks away from the polls, especially in the south, by setting up unfair demands, like literacy tests, before they could get a ballot.
There are portions of 15 states that now must get approval from the Justice Department before they alter either the shape of their election districts or regulations involving voting, including the locations where citizens vote.
The department has frequently raised objections to procedures in those areas and the key provision in the law has been extended several times. It was last extended in 2006, to go through the year 2031, after an extension was overwhelmingly passed by Congress and signed by then-President George W. Bush.
But many states and local governments have long been upset with what they consider the needless expense and time spent trying to comply with the critical preclearance process.
They have also maintained that the original formula used to make decisions is outdated in how it uses voter registration and turnout data, among other metrics. They also point to increasing voter registration among minorities, notably blacks, as well as the election of President Obama as evidence that the act is outlived its usefulness.
They clearly found a sympathetic ear in Roberts, who wrote:
“In 1965, the states could be divided into two groups: those with a recent history of voting tests and low voter registration and turnout, and those without those characteristics. Congress based its coverage formula on that distinction. Today the nation is no longer divided along those lines, yet the Voting Rights Act continues to treat it as if it were.”
While the decision was not necessarily a surprise, it remains “fairly shocking that the court would in effect strike down one of the two most important pillars of the Voting Rights Act, one of the most successful civil rights statutes ever passed by Congress,” said Nicholas Stephanopoulos of the University of Chicago Law School.
“I think they made a real mistake,” he said. “Now, what happens in the parts of the country formally protected by this provision, mostly the Deep South?”
He would not predict that the decision means that jurisdictions will now engage in racial discrimination. But, he said, other legal ways of halting such discrimination are simply not as effective as what the court struck down.