On February 27, 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in a case challenging the constitutionality of an important provision of the Voting Rights Act of 2006. This provision extended for 25 years a requirement in section 5 of the original Voting Rights Act of 1965 for certain states to obtain pre-clearance from a special federal court or the U.S. Attorney General for any changes in their election laws.
Before we review that oral argument, we will examine in separate posts four predicates for that argument. This post will discuss the first of these predicates–the relevant substance of the original Voting Rights Act of 1965.
This 1965 statute (as well as the 2006 statute) was enacted pursuant to Section 2 of the Fifteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution that provides, “The Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.” That amendment, which was ratified after the Civil War in 1870, states in Section 1: “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude”
The Voting Rights Act of 1965 is seen as a major accomplishment of the Congress and President Lyndon B. Johnson. (The photo to the left shows President Johnson signing the statute; immediately behind him is Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.) It was adopted as a result of congressional recognition that case-by-case litigation over racial voting discrimination was slow, expensive and ineffective and that a stature was needed “to cure the problem of voting discrimination” and “rid the country of racial discrimination in voting,” (South Carolina v. Katzenbach, 383 U.S. 301, 313, 315 (1966).)
The 1965 Act combined a permanent, case-by-case enforcement mechanism with a set of more stringent, temporary remedies designed to target those areas of the country where racial discrimination in voting was concentrated.
Section 2, the Act’s main permanent provision, forbids any “standard, practice, or procedure” that “results in a denial or abridgment of the right of any citizen of the United States to vote on account of race or color.” (42 U.S.C. § 1973(a).) Applicable nationwide, section 2 enables individuals to bring suit against any state or jurisdiction to challenge voting practices that have a discriminatory purpose or result. (See Thornburg v. Gingles, 478 U.S. 30, 35 (1986).)
Section 5 of the statute and the focus of the current case before the Supreme Court only applies to certain “covered jurisdictions” and “prescribes remedies . . . which go into effect without any need for prior adjudication.” (Katzenbach, 383 U.S. at 327-28.) Section 5 suspends “all changes in state election procedure until they [are] submitted to and approved by a three-judge Federal District Court in Washington, D.C., or the [U.S.] Attorney General.” (Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District No. One v. Holder, 129 S. Ct. 2504, 2509 (2009),
A “covered jurisdiction” seeking to change its voting laws or procedures must either submit the change to the Attorney General or seek preclearance directly from the three-judge court. If such a jurisdiction opts for the former and if the Attorney General lodges no objection within 60 days, the proposed law can take effect.(42 U.S.C. § 1973c(a).) But if the Attorney General lodges an objection, the submitting jurisdiction may either request reconsideration, (28 C.F.R. § 51.45(a)), or seek a de novo determination from the three-judge district court. (42 U.S.C. § 1973c(a).)
Either way, preclearance may be granted only if the jurisdiction demonstrates that the proposed change to its voting law neither “has the purpose nor . . . the effect of denying or abridging the right to vote on account of race or color.” (Id.) This provision “preempted the most powerful tools of black disenfranchisement ,” resulting in “undeniable” improvements in the protection of minority voting rights. (Northwest Austin, 129 S. Ct. at 2509. 2511.)
The “covered jurisdictions” subject to section 5 were identified in section 4(b), as originally enacted, as any state or political subdivision of a state that “maintained a voting test or device as of November 1, 1964, and had less than 50% voter registration or turnout in the 1964 presidential election.” (Voting Rights Act of 1965, Pub. L. No. 89-110, § 4(b), 79 Stat. 437, 438.) Congress chose these criteria carefully because it knew precisely which states it sought to cover, those six southern states with the worst historical records of racial discrimination in voting: Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Virginia.
In so doing, Congress recognized that these criteria for determining “covered jurisdictions” might have to be adjusted over time.
- First, as it existed in 1965, section 4(a) allowed jurisdictions to earn exemption from coverage by obtaining from a three-judge district court a declaratory judgment that in the previous five years (i.e., before they became subject to the Act) they had used no test or device “for the purpose or with the effect of denying or abridging the right to vote on account of race or color.” (1965 Act § 4(a).) This so-called “bailout” provision, as subsequently amended, addresses potential over-inclusiveness of section 5, allowing jurisdictions with clean records to terminate their section 5 pre-clearance obligations.
- Second, section 3(c) authorizes federal courts to require pre-clearance by any non-covered state or political subdivision found to have violated the Fourteenth or Fifteenth Amendments. (42 U.S.C. § 1973a(c).) Specifically, courts presiding over voting discrimination suits may “retain jurisdiction for such period as [they] may deem appropriate” and order that during that time no voting change take effect unless either approved by the court or unopposed by the Attorney General. (Id.) This judicial “bail-in” provision addresses the formula’s potential under-inclusiveness.
In South Carolina v. Katzenbach, the Supreme Court sustained the constitutionality of section 5, holding that its provisions “are a valid means for carrying out the commands of the Fifteenth Amendment.” As originally enacted in 1965, section 5 was to remain in effect for five years. Congress subsequently renewed these temporary provisions, including sections 4(b) and 5, in 1970 (for five years), in 1975 (for seven years), and in 1982 (for twenty-five years). The Supreme Court also sustained the constitutionality of each extension through 2007. (Georgia v. United States, 411 U.S. 526 (1973); City of Rome v. United States, 446 U.S. 156 (1980); Lopez v. Monterey County, 525 U.S. 266 (1999).)
 The 2006 statute’s correct title is the Fannie Lou Hamer, Rosa Parks, Coretta Scott King Voting Rights Act Reauthorization and Amendments Act of 2006.
 The states now subject to section 5 are Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia.
 The other predicates to be examined in separate posts are the Voting Rights Act of 2006; the 2009 Supreme Court decision regarding the 2006 statute (Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District No. One v. Holder); and the 2012 decision of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, 2 to 1, upholding the constitutionality of the 2006 statute in the case now pending in the Supreme Court. (Shelby County, Alabama v. Holder.)
 The 1982 extension also made the provision for “bailout” from section 5 restrictions substantially more permissive.