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.  That provision imposes a requirement in section 5 for certain states to obtain pre-clearance from a special federal court or the U.S. Department of Justice for any changes in their election laws.
Prior posts have reviewed the original Voting Rights Act of 1965 and its extension in the Voting Rights Act of 2006. Before we discuss the recent Supreme court argument, we now look at another of its predicates: the previous Supreme Court decision regarding the Voting Rights Act of 2006: Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District No. One v. Holder. 
Opinion of the Court
The opinion for the Court was written by Chief Justice John Roberts, who was joined by seven Associate Justices (Stevens, Scalia, Kennedy, Souter, Ginsburg, Breyer and Alito).
The Roberts opinion interpreted the statute as reauthorized in 2006 to allow any covered jurisdiction, including the utility district bringing suit in that case, to seek bailout, thus avoiding the need to resolve whether the 25-year reauthorization in 2006 was constitutional.
As a result, the rest of the opinion’s extensive discussion of constitutional concerns over the 2006 statute technically are dicta, but the Supreme court’s dicta are obviously important for the lower federal courts and legal observers to see which way the winds are blowing.
The opinion paid at least verbal homage to the longstanding legal principles that “judging the constitutionality of an Act of Congress is ‘the gravest and most delicate duty that this Court is called on to perform’” and that “Congress is a coequal branch of government whose Members take the same oath we do to uphold the Constitution of the United States.’” Moreover, Roberts emphasized that “the Fifteenth Amendment empowers ‘Congress,’ not the Court, to determine in the first instance what legislation is needed to enforce it.”
Roberts acknowledged that in 1965 when the original statute was passed, “unconstitutional discrimination was rampant and the ‘registration of voting-age whites ran roughly 50 percentage points or more ahead’ of black registration in many covered States” and that the Court had upheld the constitutionality of the original statute and its extensions through 2006.
However, Roberts left the distinct impression that at least he thought that since 2006 the work of abolishing racial discrimination in voting was over.
He said, “Things have changed in the South. Voter turnout and registration rates now approach parity. Blatantly discriminatory evasions of federal decrees are rare. And minority candidates hold office at unprecedented levels.” Moreover, “many of the first generation barriers to minority voter registration and voter turnout that were in place prior to the [original Voting Rights Act] have been eliminated.” The “registration gap between white and black voters is in single digits in the covered States; in some of those States, blacks now register and vote at higher rates than whites. Similar dramatic improvements have occurred for other racial minorities.”
“These improvements are no doubt due,” the opinion stated, “in significant part to the [original] Voting Rights Act itself [as extended through 2006] , and stand as a monument to its success.”
Almost offhandedly the opinion conceded, “It may be that these improvements are insufficient and that conditions continue to warrant preclearance under the Act.”
And the opinion did say that “Congress amassed a sizable record in support of its decision to extend the preclearance requirements, a record the District Court determined ‘document[ed] contemporary racial discrimination in covered states.’ The District Court also found that the record “demonstrat[ed] that section 5 prevents discriminatory voting changes’ by ‘quietly but effectively deterring discriminatory changes.’”
But Roberts did not refer to, quote or discuss the extensive congressional findings in the Voting Rights Act itself that fighting voter racial discrimination was not finished.
The Court’s opinion identified two “serious . . . questions” about section 5’s continued constitutionality, namely, whether the “current burdens” it imposes are “justified by current needs,” and whether its “disparate geographic coverage is sufficiently related to the problem that it targets.”
These burdens, said the opinion, were the “federal intrusion into sensitive areas of state and local policymaking.” Section 5, it continued, “goes beyond the prohibition of the Fifteenth Amendment by suspending all changes to state election law—however innocuous—until they have been precleared by federal authorities in Washington, D. C. The preclearance requirement applies broadly, and in particular to every political subdivision in a covered State, no matter how small.”
The second problem identified by Roberts stemmed from the statue’s differentiation “between the States, despite our historic tradition that all the States enjoy “equal sovereignty.” Such “distinctions can be justified in some cases. But a departure from the fundamental principle of equal sovereignty requires a showing that a statute’s disparate geographic coverage is sufficiently related to the problem that it targets.”
Opinion of Justice Clarence Thomas
Associate Justice Clarence Thomas filed a separate opinion in this case, concurring in the judgment in part and dissenting in part.
Thomas said, “the Court’s statutory decision does not provide appellant with full relief” and, therefore, he concludes, “it is inappropriate to apply the constitutional avoidance doctrine in this case. I would therefore decide the constitutional issue presented and hold that §5 exceeds Congress’ power to enforce the Fifteenth Amendment.” The latter conclusion was based upon his assertion that there was a “lack of current evidence of intentional discrimination with respect to voting.”
 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.
 Another predicate to the recent Supreme court argument will be discussed in a future post: the 2012 decision of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit that is the subject of the recent argument in the Supreme Court (Shelby County, Alabama v. Holder).
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