Supreme Court Ends Era of the Voting Rights Act

Representatives from the NAACP Legal Defense Fund stand outside the Supreme Court in Washington on June 25 Photograph by J. Scott Applewhite/AP Photo

The Supreme Court’s conservative majority ended an era in American racial relations.

The 5-4 decision (PDF) today to kill a core part of the 1965 Voting Rights Act eviscerates a landmark law that allowed millions of southern blacks to participate in democracy. The South, the high court majority declared, is no longer the zone of racism and segregation that stubbornly preserved attitudes tracing back to slave days. In other words, five justices reasoned, the very success of the Voting Rights Act has altered political reality, making the law unnecessary and unjustified.

Perhaps the most striking thing about the ruling is its sheer boldness in demanding that society cease using one of the main tools employed for generations to make amends for the legacy of slavery. That aggressive action stands in sharp contrast to the court’s cautious refusal just a day earlier in a separate case to heed conservative calls for an end to racial-preference policies in university admissions.

“Our country has changed,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote for the court in the voting-rights ruling, “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.” In a case concerning Shelby County, Ala., the majority invalidated the Voting Rights Act’s requirement that officials in historically discriminatory jurisdictions obtain federal approval before changing their polling rules. The high court’s decision leaves open an opportunity for Congress to update the formula used to determine which states are covered by the act.

Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy, Clarence Thomas, and Samuel Alito joined the Roberts opinion. The court’s four Democratic appointees—Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan—dissented in an opinion written by Justice Ginsburg.

The dissenters emphasized the majority’s defiance of Congress, which reauthorized the Voting Rights Act in 2006 and extended it for 25 years. The vote in the Senate was 98-0; in the House, 390-33. President George W. Bush, a Republican, signed the extension into law. “After exhaustive evidence-gathering and deliberative process, Congress reauthorized the VRA, including the coverage provision, with overwhelming bipartisan support,” Ginsburg noted. “In my judgment, the court errs egregiously by overriding Congress’s decision.”

At issue in the case was the act’s “pre-clearance” provision. That section of the law required all or parts of 15 states, including almost the entire South, to get federal approval before adjusting election districts, amending voting rules, or moving polling places. The Justice Department objected to more than 2,400 voting changes from 1982 to 2006. The Roberts majority said that Congress relied on outdated analysis of voter-registration rates, turnout, and ballot rules in deciding which states ought to be covered.

Civil rights advocates mourned what they called a huge step backwards for blacks and members of other minority groups. “In the last few years,” Sherrilyn Ifill, president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, said via e-mail, “we have witnessed an assault on our voting rights in the places covered by the Voting Rights Act that has been historic, both in terms of its scope and intensity. In the 2012 elections, Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act blocked efforts to suppress millions of voters of color in Florida, Texas, and South Carolina. In the past 25 years, Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act has stopped over 1,000 proposed discriminatory voting changes from taking effect.”

Ifill called on Congress to respond to the high court’s ruling, adding: “When it comes to matters as fundamental as the right to vote, we can’t wait for problems to occur before we fix them.”

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