Supreme Court strikes part of 1965 Voting Act with Shelby decision

The Supreme Court strikes down part of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Photo: AP

WASHINGTON, June 25, 2013 — The Supreme Court ruled today that a key aspect of the landmark Voting Rights Act, section four, cannot be enforced unless Congress comes up with a new way of determining which states and local regions require federal monitoring of elections.

The justices said in a 5 to 4 decision that the law Congress most recently renewed in 2006 relies on 40-year-old data that does not reflect racial progress and changes in U.S. society.

The Court did not strike down the fifth section of the law that requires states to get federal permission before changing their voting rules, but the justices did say lawmakers must update the formula for determining which parts of the country must seek Washington’s approval, in advance, for election changes.

“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,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote for the Court.

Justice Roberts, speaking for the conservative majority, wrote that Congress “may draft another formula based on current conditions.”

Under the current law, nine mostly Southern states must get permission from the Justice Department or a special panel of three federal judges before they make changes in their regional voting laws. The rule also applies to 12 cities and 57 counties elsewhere.

The decision comes five months after President Barack Obama, the nation’s first black chief executive, started his second term in the White House, re-elected by a diverse coalition of voters.

The high Court is in the midst of a broad re-examination of the ongoing necessity of laws and programs aimed at giving racial minorities access to major areas of American life from which they once were systematically excluded. The justices issued a ruling Monday which allows affirmative action to continue on college campuses throughout the country

The Court warned of problems with the voting rights law in a similar case heard in 2009. The justices avoided a major constitutional ruling at that time, but Congress did nothing to address the issues the court raised. Opponents of the law, sensing its vulnerability, filed several new lawsuits.

Today’s decision came after a challenge to the advance approval, or preclearance, requirement, which was brought by Shelby County, Ala., a Birmingham suburb.

The lawsuit acknowledged that the measure was appropriate and necessary to counteract decades of state-sponsored discrimination in voting, despite the Fifteenth Amendment’s guarantee of the vote for black Americans, but it asked whether there would ever be an end to a provision that intrudes on states’ rights to conduct elections, a question The Court’s conservative judges were interested in during the oral arguments in February. It was considered an emergency response when first enacted in 1965.

The Obama administration and civil rights groups said there is a continuing need for it and pointed to the Justice Department’s efforts to block voter ID laws in South Carolina and Texas last year, as well as a redistricting plan in Texas that a federal court found discriminated against the state’s large and growing Hispanic population.

Advance approval was put into the law to give federal officials a strong tool to block efforts to keep blacks from voting.

The provision was a huge success because it shifted the legal burden and required the governments that were covered to demonstrate that their proposed changes would not discriminate. Congress periodically has renewed it over the years. The most recent extension was overwhelmingly approved by a Republican-led Congress and signed by President George W. Bush.

The requirement currently applies to the states of Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia. It also covers certain counties in California, Florida, New York, North Carolina and South Dakota, and some local jurisdictions in Michigan. Coverage has been triggered by past discrimination not only against blacks, but also against American Indians, Asian-Americans, Alaska Natives and Hispanics.

Justice Clarence Thomas stated that he would have struck down the fifth section as well. He believes that the same logic used to strike down the fourth section applies to the fifth.

There are three cases remaining in the hands of the Supreme Court, the two gay rights cases questioning the constitutionality of California’s Proposition 8 and national Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), as well as Sekhar v. United States, which asks whether the “recommendation” of an attorney who is a salaried employee of a governmental agency, is intangible property if in a single instance can be the subject of an extortion attempt.

Justices will release their decisions on the remaining cases tomorrow at 10 a.m. ET.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.


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Susan L Ruth

Susan L. Ruth is a long-time Washington, DC resident with extensive ties throughout the community.  She is a genealogical researcher and writer, and is an active volunteer in the Northern Virginia competitive swimming community.  Susan previously worked providing life-skills to head injured adults. 

Susan and her husband Kerry currently live in Northern Virginia with their three sons, Ryley, Casey and Jack and their American Bulldog, Leila.


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