A divided U.S. Supreme Court threw out a core part of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, rolling back a landmark law that opened the polls to millions of southern blacks.
The justices, voting 5-4, struck down the law’s formula for determining which states must get federal approval before changing their election rules. The ruling all but invalidates that preclearance requirement, leaving it without force unless Congress can enact a new method for determining which jurisdictions are covered.
The ruling marks one of the biggest civil rights decisions in decades. It’s the boldest step yet by Chief Justice John Roberts’s conservative majority to cut back legal protections that have benefited racial minorities since the 1960s. The decision blocks a tool the Justice Department has used to halt thousands of state and local voting changes, including identification laws in Texas and South Carolina last year.
“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,” Roberts wrote for the court.
The justices will issue the final rulings of their nine-month term tomorrow, including decisions on gay marriage. The court yesterday ordered tougher judicial scrutiny of university affirmative action programs.
Today’s ruling had an immediate effect in Texas, where a voter ID law had been blocked in court at the Justice Department’s urging. Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott said in a statement today that the ID law will take effect “immediately.”
“I am deeply disappointed with the Supreme Court’s decision today,” President Barack Obama said in a statement released by the White House. The ruling “upsets decades of well-established practices that help make sure voting is fair, especially in places where voting discrimination has been historically prevalent.”
The court split along familiar ideological lines. Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas, Anthony Kennedy and Samuel Alito joined Roberts in the majority. Justices Stephen Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan dissented.
Under the preclearance requirement, all or parts of 15 states had to get federal approval before changing election districts, amending voting rules or even moving a polling place. The Justice Department used that provision, which covers virtually the entire South, to object to more than 2,400 state and local voting changes from 1982 to 2006.
The court majority faulted Congress for relying on a decades-old formula for determining which states were covered by the preclearance requirement, also known as Section 5. The formula ties coverage to voter registration rates, turnout and ballot-box rules in the 1960s and early 1970s.
“Those extraordinary and unprecedented features were reauthorized -- as if nothing had changed,” Roberts wrote. “In fact, the act’s unusual remedies have grown even stronger.”
The court left Section 5 itself intact. Thomas wrote that he would have invalidated that as well.
Congress reauthorized the law in 2006, extending it for 25 years on lopsided votes: 98-0 in the Senate and 390-33 in the House. Then-President George W. Bush, a Republican, signed the measure into law.
“After exhaustive evidence-gathering and deliberative process, Congress reauthorized the VRA, including the coverage provision, with overwhelming bipartisan support,” wrote Ginsburg, who read a summary of her dissent from the bench to give it added emphasis. “In my judgment, the court errs egregiously by overriding Congress’s decision.”
The Voting Rights Act was enacted to combat discrimination that kept black people away from Southern polling places for generations. A separate section of the law bars voting discrimination nationwide and isn’t affected by the high court case.
Roberts said Congress “may draft another formula based on current conditions.” Still, political realities are likely to make that task difficult, if not impossible.
“As long as Republicans have a majority in the House and Democrats don’t have 60 votes in the Senate, there will be no preclearance,” Senator Charles Schumer, a Democrat from New York, said in a statement.
Obama called on Congress to pass new legislation in response to the ruling. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Democrat from Nevada, said the Senate “will act.”
Patrick Leahy, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said he will schedule a hearing next month.
“Many Americans who were protected by this law will now be vulnerable to discriminatory practices and will have much greater difficulty accessing the ballot box,” Leahy, a Democrat from Vermont, said in a statement.
Senator Charles Grassley of Iowa, the top Republican on the judiciary panel, said in an interview that he’s doubtful a legislative response is needed. He said the court’s ruling reflects that the nation has changed.
“It proves that after 45 years that the Voting Rights Act is working,” Grassley said of the court’s ruling.
The Obama administration contended that the reauthorization was a legitimate use of Congress’s power under the Constitution’s 14th and 15th Amendments to combat racial discrimination.
The administration said the formula originally was reverse-engineered to include the jurisdictions Congress wanted to cover. In 2006, lawmakers simply left the formula intact so that the same jurisdictions would continue to be covered, the administration argued.
The coverage formula was designed to include states with the deepest history of discrimination -- Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina and Virginia. Three other states -- Alaska, Arizona and Texas -- were added in the 1970s when the statute was expanded to protect “language minority” groups.
Congress let some areas escape coverage if they can show compliance with anti-discrimination rules. Lawmakers also let judges put other areas under the preclearance system.
Section 5 eventually came to govern a patchwork of jurisdictions around the country. Parts of some covered states are exempt, while selected cities and counties in California, Florida, New York, North Carolina, South Dakota and Michigan were covered.
Supporters of Section 5 say the ruling may let state and local governments revive discriminatory voting practices that were previously either blocked or deterred.
“Today, the Supreme Court stuck a dagger in the heart of the Voting Rights Act of 1965,” said Georgia Democratic Representative John Lewis, a civil rights leader who was beaten by police and suffered a fractured skull during a 1965 march that spurred passage of the Voting Rights Act. “It took people struggling and dying for the right to vote.”
Sherrilyn Ifill, president of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, said the ruling “takes the most powerful tool our nation has to defend minority voting rights out of commission.”
The law was challenged by Shelby County, Alabama, which said Congress had failed to show that the law was still needed.
“We’re elated,” Frank C. Ellis Jr., Shelby County’s attorney, said from his office in Columbiana, Alabama. “If you’re imposing on sovereign states and cities and counties this burden -- this extraordinary burden and departure from federalism -- you’ve got to have current justification, not justification that’s 50 years old.”
Edward Blum, who organized the Shelby County challenge, said the ruling “confirmed that there are no meaningful differences in minority voting opportunities between the covered and non-covered jurisdictions.” Blum is the director of the Project on Fair Representation in Alexandria, Virginia.
The Supreme Court upheld the preclearance requirement on four previous occasions as a legitimate means of enforcing the 15th Amendment, which bars states from restricting voting on the basis of race.
In a fifth case, in 2009, the court hinted that Section 5’s days were numbered, saying it raised “serious constitutional questions.” The court avoided the constitutional issue then, instead reaching a compromise that let more local governments seek an exemption from the preclearance rule.
Congress had previously reauthorized the measure in 1970, 1975 and 1982.
During arguments in February, Scalia said the near-unanimity among lawmakers in reauthorizing the law was “very likely attributable to a phenomenon that is called perpetuation of racial entitlement.”
The case is Shelby County v. Holder, 12-96.