Stricken provision leaves future of the law in jeopardy
In a stunning decision Tuesday that shook the legal community and outraged civil rights leaders, the Supreme Court struck down a key portion of the Voting Right Act of 1965, leaving the future of the law in jeopardy.
In a 5-4 ruling, the Court ruled that the formula for â€œpreclearanceâ€ — the process by which the U.S. Department of Justice must approve proposed changes to voting protocol in states with a history of discrimination — is unconstitutional.
Chief Justice John Roberts, who wrote the opinion for the majority, said that â€œ[o]ur 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.â€
As evidence for his proposition that the law is outdated, Roberts pointed to census information showing that, in five of the states originally affected by the law, African-American voters turn out to vote more often than their white counterparts.
Key civil rights legislation
The decision is a major blow to a law passed during the heat of the civil rights movement. Signed in 1965 by President Lyndon B. Johnson — who had signed the Civil Rights Act the previous year — the Voting Right Act forbids states from creating aÂ “voting qualification or prerequisite to voting, or standard, practice, or procedure … to deny or abridge the right of any citizen of the United States to vote on account of race or color.â€
Although the law was signed during a tumultuous period in history, it had long been considered uncontroversial. The law has been renewed by Congress four times, most recently in 2006 by margins ofÂ 390-33Â in the House of Representatives and 98-0 in the Senate.
Preclearance and formula requirements
The Supreme Courtâ€™s decision focused mainly on Section 4 of the Act, which sets forth procedures to minimize discrimination. In its opinion, the majority said that â€œ[t]he conditions that originally justified [the measures in Section 4] no longer characterize voting in the covered jurisdictions.â€
Section 4(a) of the Act states that â€œno citizen shall be denied the right to vote in any Federal, State, or local election because of his failure to comply with any test or device.â€ This provision was designed to stop practices such as literacy tests that denied swaths of otherwise eligible citizens the ability to vote.
Under Section 5 of the Act, â€œcovered jurisdictionsâ€ — states and counties that have a history of discriminating against minority voters — must have any proposed changes to voting protocol approved by the U.S. Department of Justice before those changes can be put into effect. This practice is often referred to as â€œpreclearance.â€ Section 4(b) — the section that the Court ruled unconstitutional — laid out a formula to determine which jurisdictions are required to comply with preclearance..
â€œIf Congress had started from scratch in 2006 Â [when the act was renewed], it plainly could not have enacted the present coverage formula,â€ the majority wrote. â€œIt would have been irrational for Congress to distinguish between States in such a fundamental way based on 40-year-old data, when todayâ€™s statistics tell an entirely different story.â€
The decision does not actually condemn preclearance itself, although Congress would have to draft a new formula in order for the practice to continue.
A dissent written by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg called the majority opinion an act of â€œhubris.â€
In a statement, President Obama said he was â€œdeeply disappointed with the Supreme Courtâ€™s decision.â€
â€œAs a nation, weâ€™ve made a great deal of progress towards guaranteeing every American the right to vote,â€ Obama said. â€œBut, as the Supreme Court recognized, voting discrimination still exists.â€
And Rep. John Lewis, a civil rights icon who was beaten by police during the Selma to Montgomery March,Â Â that â€œwhat the court did today is stab the Voting Rights Act of 1965 in its very heart.â€
(originally published atÂ )