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Supreme Court strikes down section 4 of Voting Rights Act

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Tuesday effectively struck down the heart of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 by a 5-to-4 vote, ruling that Congress had not provided adequate justification for subjecting nine states, mostly in the South, to federal oversight.

Wade Henderson, president and C.E.O. of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, criticized the decision on Tuesday.

“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,” Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. wrote for the majority. “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.”

The court divided along ideological lines, and the two sides drew sharply different lessons from the history of the civil rights movement and gave very different accounts of whether racial minorities continue to face discrimination in voting.

President Obama, whose election as the nation’s first black president was cited by critics of the law as evidence that it was no longer needed, said he was “deeply disappointed” by the ruling. “Today’s decision invalidating one of its core provisions upsets decades of well-established practices that help make sure voting is fair, especially in places where voting discrimination has been historically prevalent,” he said.

The decision will have immediate practical consequences. Changes in voting procedures that had required advance federal approval, including voter identification laws and restrictions on early voting, will now be subject only to after-the-fact litigation.

“With today’s decision,” said Greg Abbott, Texas’ attorney general, “the state’s voter ID law will take effect immediately. Redistricting maps passed by the Legislature may also take effect without approval from the federal government.”

Chief Justice Roberts said that Congress remained free to try to impose federal oversight on states where voting rights were at risk, but must do so based on contemporary data. When the law was last renewed, in 2006, Congress relied on data from decades before to decide which states and localities were covered. The chances that the current Congress could reach agreement on where federal oversight is required are small, most analysts say.

Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony M. Kennedy, Clarence Thomas and Samuel A. Alito Jr. joined the majority opinion. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg dissented, joined by Justices Stephen G. Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan.

The majority held that the coverage formula in Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act, originally passed in 1965 and most recently updated by Congress in 1975, was unconstitutional. The section determines which states must receive preclearance from the Justice Department or a federal court in Washington before they make minor changes to voting procedures, like relocating a polling place, or major ones, like redrawing electoral districts.

The current coverage scheme, Chief Justice Roberts wrote, is “based on 40-year-old facts having no relationship to the present day.”

“Congress — if it is to divide the states — must identify those jurisdictions to be singled out on a basis that makes sense in light of current conditions,” he wrote. “It cannot simply rely on the past.”

The decision did not strike down Section 5, which sets out the preclearance requirement. But without Section 4, which determines which states are covered, Section 5 is without significance — unless Congress chooses to pass a new bill for determining which states would be covered.

It was hardly clear, in any event, that the court’s conservative majority would uphold Section 5 if the question returned to the court in the unlikely event that Congress enacted a new coverage formula. In a concurrence, Justice Thomas called for striking down Section 5 immediately, saying the majority opinion had provided the reasons and merely left “the inevitable conclusion unstated.”

The Supreme Court had repeatedly upheld the law in earlier decisions, saying that the preclearance requirement was an effective tool to combat the legacy of lawless conduct by Southern officials bent on denying voting rights to blacks.

Critics of Section 5 say it is a unique federal intrusion on state sovereignty and a badge of shame for the affected jurisdictions that is no longer justified.

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was one of the towering legislative achievements of the civil rights movement, and Chief Justice Roberts said its "strong medicine" was the right response to "entrenched racial discrimination." At the time it was first enacted, he said, black voter turnout in the South stood at 6.4 percent in Mississippi.

In the most recent election, by contrast, “African-American voter turnout has come to exceed white voter turnout in five of the six states originally covered by Section 5.”

The chief justice recalled the Freedom Summer of 1964, when the civil rights workers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner were murdered near Philadelphia, Miss., while working to register black voters. He mentioned Bloody Sunday in 1965, when police officers beat marchers seeking the right to vote in Selma, Ala.

“Today,” Chief Justice Roberts wrote, “both of those towns are governed by African-American mayors. Problems remain in these states and others, but there is no denying that, due to the Voting Rights Act, our nation has made great strides.”

In summarizing her dissent from the bench, an unusual move and a sign of deep disagreement, Justice Ginsburg called on the words of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to make a different point.

“The great man who led the march from Selma to Montgomery and there called for the passage of the Voting Rights Act foresaw progress, even in Alabama,” she said. “'The arc of the moral universe is long,’ he said, but ‘it bends toward justice,’ if there is a steadfast commitment to see the task through to completion.”

“That commitment,” she said, “has been disserved by today’s decision.”

She said the focus of the Voting Rights Act had properly changed from “first-generation barriers to ballot access” to “second-generation barriers” like racial gerrymandering and laws requiring at-large voting in places with a sizable black minority. She said Section 5 had been effective in thwarting such efforts.

In any event, she said, Congress, which reauthorized the law by a large majority in the House and unanimously in the Senate, was the right body to decide whether the law was needed and where.

The Supreme Court had once before considered the constitutionality of the 2006 extension of the law in a 2009 decision, Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District Number One v. Holder. But it avoided answering the central question, and it seemed to give Congress an opportunity to make adjustments. Congress, Chief Justice Roberts noted on Tuesday, did not respond.

Justice Ginsburg suggested in her dissent that an era had drawn to a close with the court’s decision on the Voting Rights Act, or V.R.A., in Shelby County v. Holder, No. 12-96.

“Beyond question, the V.R.A. is no ordinary legislation,” she wrote. “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,” the Reconstruction Era amendment that barred racial discrimination in voting and authorized Congress to enforce it.

“The court errs egregiously,” she concluded, “by overriding Congress’s decision.”

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Tags: john roberts, race / racism, scotus, voting
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