U.S. Supreme Court Curtails Voting Rights Act

By Mark Walsh — June 25, 2013 2 min read
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The U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday struck down the formulas embedded in the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that define which jurisdictions, including school boards, were required to get federal approval before any changes in voting.

The justices ruled 5 to 4 that the formulas relied on by Congress when it overwhelmingly reauthorized the act in 2006 were based on “decades-old data and eradicated practices,” Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. put it for the majority in Shelby County, Ala. v. Holder (Case No. 12-96).

The court declined to strike down Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, which requires jurisdictions with a history of discrimination in voting practices to get approval for any change in voting from the U.S. Department of Justice or the federal district court in Washington. But the court’s invalidation of the coverage formulas in Section 4 of the law effectively blocks federal oversight of election changes pending any action by Congress to draw up new formulas.

Section 5 covers nine states—Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas, and Virginia—as well as certain jurisdictions in several other states.

Shelby County, Ala., challenged the 2006 renewal, arguing that it impinges on state sovereignty.

Chief Justice Roberts said the massive record compiled by lawmakers in support of the 2006 renewal of the law did not show “anything approaching the pervasive, flagrant, widespread, and rampant discrimination that faced Congress in 1965, and that clearly distinguished the covered jurisdictions from the rest of the nation at that time.”

“Congress did not use the record it compiled to shape a coverage formula grounded in current conditions,” the chief justice added. “It instead reenacted a formula based on 40-year-old facts having no logical relation to the present day.”

Roberts said that nearly 50 years after the act’s adoption, “things have changed dramatically. ... Blatantly discriminatory evasions of federal decrees are rare. And minority candidates hold office at unprecedented levels.”

His opinion was joined by Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony M. Kennedy, Clarence Thomas, and Samuel A. Alito Jr.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg somberly read from the bench part of her dissent, which was joined by Justices Stephen G. Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan.

She said that even though registration and voting by minority group members increased significantly under the Voting Rights Act, “other barriers sprang up to replace the tests and devices that once impeded access to the ballot.”

These included racial gerrymandering, switches from single-member electoral districts to at-large membership of city councils and school boards, and discriminatory annexations, Ginsburg said.

She cited, among other examples, a 2003 case in which African-Americans won a majority of the seats for the first time on the Charleston County, S.C., school board. In response, the outgoing board proposed to switch to an at-large voting system. The Justice Department invoked Section 5 to block the proposed change, Ginsburg said.

That example, “and scores more like them, fill the pages of the legislative record” that was before Congress in 2006, Ginsburg said.

Invoking Martin Luther King Jr. and alluding to his “I Have a Dream” speech, Ginsburg said that “thanks to the Voting Rights Act, progress once the subject of a dream has been achieved and continues to be made.”

“In my judgment, the court errs egregiously by overriding Congress’ decision,” she said.

A version of this news article first appeared in The School Law Blog.