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 “preclearance” -- 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 “[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.”
As evidence for his proposition that the law is outdated, Roberts pointed to census information showing that, in five of the states originally affected by the law, African-American voters turn out to vote more often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 a "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.”
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 of 390-33 in the House of Representatives and 98-0 in the Senate.
Preclearance and formula requirements
The Supreme Court’s decision focused mainly on Section 4 of the Act, which sets forth procedures to minimize discrimination. In its opinion, the majority said that “[t]he conditions that originally justified [the measures in Section 4] no longer characterize voting in the covered jurisdictions.”
Section 4(a) of the Act states that “no 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.” 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, “covered jurisdictions” -- 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 “preclearance.” Section 4(b) -- the section that the Court ruled unconstitutional -- laid out a formula to determine which jurisdictions are required to comply with preclearance..
“If Congress had started from scratch in 2006 [when the act was renewed], it plainly could not have enacted the present coverage formula,” the majority wrote. “It would have been irrational for Congress to distinguish between States in such a fundamental way based on 40-year-old data, when today’s statistics tell an entirely different story.”
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 “hubris.”
In a statement, President Obama said he was “deeply disappointed with the Supreme Court’s decision.”
“As a nation, we’ve made a great deal of progress towards guaranteeing every American the right to vote,” Obama said. “But, as the Supreme Court recognized, voting discrimination still exists.”
And Rep. John Lewis, a civil rights icon who was beaten by police during the Selma to Montgomery March, told MSNBC that “what the court did today is stab the Voting Rights Act of 1965 in its very heart.”