As widely reported, the U.S. Supreme Court in Shelby County v. Holder recently held unconstitutional a key provision of the Voting Rights Act of 2006.
That provision, section 4, which was part of the original statute enacted in 1965, established a formula to determine which states were subject to pre-clearance by the U.S. Department of Justice or a three-judge federal district court of any changes to the state’s voting procedures. Such pre-clearance approval could be obtained only if the proposed change was shown to have neither “the purpose [nor] the effect of denying or abridging the right to vote on account of race or color.”
Section 4’s formula, as amended in 1975, established as “covered jurisdictions” those States or political subdivisions that had maintained a test or device (literacy or knowledge tests, good moral character requirements, vouchers from registered voters, providing English-only voting material s in places where over 5% of voting-age citizens spoke a language other than English) as a prerequisite to voting as of November 1, 1972, and had less than 50% voter registration or turnout in the 1972 presidential election.
The opinion for the Court by Chief Justice John Roberts (joined by Justices Scalia, Kennedy, Thomas and Alito) held that this formula imposed current burdens on the covered jurisdictions that were not justified by current needs. Section 4, therefore, violated basic principles of equal state sovereignty or autonomy over voting and was unconstitutional. This conclusion was reached even though the Chief Justice acknowledged that “voting discrimination still exists.”
The fundamental factual premise of the opinion was the assertion that the U.S. had significantly changed in racial discrimination in voting since 1965. As the Chief Justice said, “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.”
Justice Ginsburg, who was joined by Justices Breyer, Sotomayor and Kagan, issued a stinging dissenting opinion.
She emphasized that the Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution granted to Congress, not the courts, the power to enact legislation to enforce the Amendment’s ban on racial discrimination in voting. Moreover, the Supreme Court itself repeatedly has held that Congress’ judgment on such matters warrants “substantial deference” and that congressional power is “at its height” when it so acts.
As a result, the proper question for the courts is whether Congress had employed “rational means” in re-enacting section 4 as part of the 2006 Act. According to the dissenting opinion, section 4 meets that test. There was abundant evidence of continued racial discrimination in voting before Congress when it adopted the 2006 Act, and Congress acted with “great care and seriousness” in so doing.
Indeed, Justice Ginsburg stressed, the formula in section 4 is subject to statutory provisions “allowing jurisdictions to ‘bail out’ of preclearance, and for court-ordered “bail ins.” These mechanisms were seen by Congress as “effective means of adjusting the [Act’s] coverage over time.” Therefore, the dissent asserted it is erroneous for the Court’s majority to see the Act as “static, unchanged since 1965. Congress designed the [statute] to be a dynamic statute, capable of adjusting to changing circumstances.”
In short, the dissent says, “Hubris is a fit word for today’s demolition of the [statute].” The majority of the Court “errs egregiously by overriding Congress’ decision.”
The key failure of the majority opinion for me is its narrow focus on the coverage formula in section 4 instead of looking at how the formula works in the statute as a whole. As Justice Ginsburg and previously the D.C. Circuit emphasized, the coverage formula has to be seen with the statutory mechanisms for adjusting coverage to new circumstances through the bail-in or bailout provisions. It is dynamic and capable of adjusting to new circumstances.
Indeed, the Supreme Court did just that in 2009 in Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District No. One v. Holder. The Court’s opinion by Chief Justice Roberts provided a broad reading of the bail out provision to allow the political subdivision in the case to bailout from coverage under sections 4 and 5.
 The Supreme Court opinions in Shelby County are available online. Prior posts have discussed the original Voting Rights Act of 1965, the Voting Rights Act of 2006, a prior Supreme Court decision on the latter statute (Northwest Austin), the D.C. Circuit’s decision in Shelby County and the recent Supreme Court oral argument in that case.
 Justice Thomas issued a concurring opinion that section 5 of the Act was unconstitutional as well.
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