Former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Criticizes Its Decision on the Voting Rights Act of 2006

John Paul Stevens
John Paul Stevens

 

John Paul Stevens, who served as an Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court for nearly 35 years (1975-2010), has issued a stinging rebuke to its recent decision invalidating an important provision of the Voting Rights Act of 2006.

Stevens’ remarks came in his review of a book about the history of that statute: Bending Toward Justice: The Voting Rights Act and the Transformation of American Democracy.[1]

As discussed in a prior post, the court on June 25th in an opinion by Chief Justice John Roberts (joined by Justices Scalia, Kennedy, Thomas and Alito) held unconstitutional the Act’s formula that determined 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. The Court concluded that the burdens of such pre-clearance on the jurisdictions covered by the formula were not justified by current needs and, therefore, violated basic principles of equal state sovereignty or autonomy over voting.[2]

First, Stevens disputed the major legal premise of the Roberts’ opinion. Instead, Stevens agreed with Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s dissenting opinion in the case that “the principle [of equal sovereignty] “applies only to the terms upon which States are admitted to the Union, and not to the remedies for local evils which have subsequently appeared.” (Emphasis in Stevens’ book review.)

Second and more importantly, Stevens strenuously objected to the Court’s not respecting the virtually unanimous congressional support for the 2006 re-authorization of the Voting Rights Act after “thorough evidentiary hearings.” Said Stevens,

  • “The members of Congress, representing the millions of voters who elected them, are far more likely to evaluate correctly the risk that the interest in maintaining the supremacy of the white race still plays a significant role in the politics of those states. After all, that interest was responsible for creating the slave bonus when the Constitution was framed, and in motivating the violent behavior that denied blacks access to the polls in those states for decades prior to the enactment of the [Act].”

Stevens found support for this conclusion in an unlikely source–the dissenting opinion of Justice Antonin Scalia in the case that invalidated the federal Defense of Marriage Act.[3] According to Justice Scalia,

  • “This [DOMA] case is about power in several respects. It is about the power of our people to govern themselves, and the power of this Court to pronounce the law. Today’s opinion aggrandizes the latter, with the predictable consequence of diminishing the former. We have no power to decide this case. And even if we did, we have no power under the Constitution to invalidate this democratically adopted legislation. The Court’s errors on both points spring forth from the same diseased root: an exalted conception of the role of this institution [the Supreme Court] in America.”

[1] The Stevens book review is also discussed in The Atlantic and Politico.

[2]  Earlier posts provided important background for the Supreme Court’s decision.

[3] The DOMA case is United States v. Windsor, No. 12-307 (June 26, 2013).

 

U.S. Supreme Court Shows Unjustified Hostility to the Voting Rights Act of 2006

On February 27, 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Shelby County, Alabama v. Holder, No. 12-96, which raises the following issue:

  •  “Whether Congress’ decision in 2006 to reauthorize [for 25 years] Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act [of 1965] under the pre-existing coverage formula of Section 4(b) of [that] Act [requiring certain states to obtain preclearance from the U.S. Department of Justice or a special federal court for any changes in their election laws] exceeded           its authority under the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments and thus violated the Tenth Amendment and Article IV of the United States Constitution.”[1]

As has been frequently reported, during the argument Chief Justice John Roberts and Associate Justices Antonin Scalia, Samuel Alito and Anthony Kennedy asked questions and made comments strongly suggesting that they were prepared to invalidate this statutory provision,[2] a conclusion that already had been reached by Associate Justice Clarence Thomas in a prior case. If this is a correct reading of the recent argument, then there would be at least a 5-4 majority on the Court to declare the provision unconstitutional.

According to Linda Greenhouse, a leading Supreme Court follower, the “goal of [the petitioner] Shelby County and [apparently a majority] . . . on the Supreme Court is to depict Section 5 as an anachronism, a needless cudgel held by the big bad federal government over the head of a transformed South.“

Here are just a couple of examples of that attitude from the argument.

Chief Justice John Roberts
Chief Justice         John Roberts

Chief Justice Roberts asked or, as Greenhouse put it, “taunted” the U.S. Government’s lawyer (Solicitor General Donald Verrilli) with the following questions (and Roberts’ own answers) apparently to express Roberts’ belief that Mississippi has a better record than Massachusetts on black voter registration and turnout and that the Voting Rights Act provision at issue is no longer needed and, therefore, unconstitutional:

  • “Do you know how many submissions there were for preclearance to the Attorney          General in 2005?” (Roberts: “3700.”)
  • “Do you know how many objections the Attorney General lodged?” (Verrilli: “There          was one in that year.”)
  •  “[D]o you know which State has the worst ratio of white voter turnout to African American voter turnout?” (Roberts: “Massachusetts.”)
  •  “[W]hat [state] has the best, where African American turnout actually exceeds white       turnout?” (Roberts: “Mississippi.”)
  •  “Which State has the greatest disparity in registration between white and African American?” (Roberts: “Massachusetts. Third is Mississippi, where again the African American registration rate is higher than the white registration rate.”)
  •  “[I]s it the government’s submission that the citizens in the South are more racist             than citizens in the North?”  (Verrilli: “It is not.”)

Roberts did not identify the source of his statistics, but afterwards the Massachusetts Secretary of State, William F. Galvin, and political scientists speculated that Roberts drew his conclusions from the U.S. Census Bureau’s “The Current Population Survey,” which collects information on voting and registration every other year. This data, however, should not be used in the way that Roberts did because of their large margins of error, as reported by Nina Totenberg of National Public Radio.

Indeed, Secretary Galvin said that Roberts’ assertion about Massachusetts and Mississippi is just plain wrong and that the only way that the Census Bureau source supports Roberts’ assertion is by including Massachusetts’ non-citizen blacks who are not entitled to vote. To do what Roberts did, according to Galvin, is “deceptive” and “a slur on black voters in Massachusetts.”

Nate Silver, the statistician, also criticizes Roberts’ trumpeting these figures about Mississippi and Massachusetts apparently to justify a conclusion that the Voting Rights Act provisions in question are no longer needed and, therefore, unconstitutional.

According to Silver, “If [Roberts] . . . meant to suggest that states covered by Section 5 consistently have better black turnout rates than those that aren’t covered by the statute, then his claim is especially dubious.” Moreover, says Silver, it is outright fallacious to conclude from this simple comparison of two states, however flawed the data, that the provisions of section 5 of the Voting Rights Act and the formula in section 4(b) are no longer needed. For example, such data say nothing about whether whatever gains have been made in racial minority voting “might be lost if the Section 5 requirements were dropped now.”

I also fault the Chief Justice for focusing on only one small piece of evidence, however flawed or subject to qualification. Instead, he should be focusing on fundamental principles of judicial restraint as repeatedly proclaimed by the U.S. Supreme Court itself and as cited by the D.C. Circuit in its opinion in this case.

These precedents emphasize that “Congress’s laws are entitled to a ‘presumption of validity’” and that “when Congress acts pursuant to its enforcement authority under the Reconstruction Amendments [including the Fifteenth Amendment], its judgments about ‘what legislation is needed . . . are entitled to much deference.‘“  Such deference is paid “‘out of respect for [Congress’] . . .  authority to exercise the legislative power,’” and in recognition that Congress “is far better equipped than the judiciary to amass and evaluate the vast amounts of data bearing upon legislative questions.” (Citations omitted.)[3]

Justice Antonin Scalia
Justice Antonin Scalia

Associate Justice Scalia also interrupted Solicitor General Verrilli to make this long statement:

  •  “This Court doesn’t like to get involved . . . in racial questions such as this one. It’s something that can be . . . left to Congress.
  • “The problem here, however, is . . . that the initial enactment of this legislation in a time when the need for it was so much more abundantly clear . . . in the Senate, . . . it was double-digits against it. And that was only a 5-year term. Then, it is reenacted 5 years later, again for a 5-year term. Double-digits against it in the Senate. Then it was reenacted for 7 years. Single digits against it. Then enacted for 25 years, 8 Senate votes against it.
  • “And this last enactment [in 2006], not a single vote in the Senate against it. And the House is pretty much the same.
  •  “Now, I don’t think that’s attributable to the fact that it is so much clearer now that we need this. I think it is . . . very likely attributable, to a phenomenon that is called perpetuation of racial entitlement. It’s been written about. Whenever a society adopts racial entitlements, it is very difficult to get out of them through the normal political processes. I don’t think there is anything to be gained by any Senator to vote against continuation of this act. And I am fairly confident it will be reenacted in perpetuity . . .  unless a court can say it does not comport with the Constitution.
  •  “You have to show, when you are treating different States differently, that there’s a good reason for it. That’s . . . the concern that those of us . . . who have some questions about this statute have. It’s . . .  a concern that this is not the kind of a question you can leave to Congress.
  •  “There are certain districts in the House that are black districts by law just about now. And even the Virginia Senators, they have no interest in voting against this. The State government is not their government, and they are going to lose . . . votes if they do not reenact the Voting Rights Act.
  •  “Even the name of it is wonderful: The Voting Rights Act. Who is going to vote against that in the future?”

These remarks are shocking and totally inconsistent with the Court’s long-established principles of judicial restraint mentioned above and with Justice Scalia’s persistently stated views about judicial interpretation of statutes.

Indeed, Scalia’s remarks provoked the Washington Post’s Editorial Board to proclaim that Scalia was in “contempt of Congress.” The editorial concluded with these words, “Congress, after careful review, came to an overwhelming conclusion that protection of the franchise in America is much improved but not guaranteed, especially in certain areas. We heard in . . . [the Supreme Court] argument no grounds for the court to claim superior wisdom on that question.”

 Conclusion

What is your opinion on how the Voting Rights Act issue should be resolved? Some argue for holding that provision unconstitutional.[4] Others agree with me that the provision should be upheld.[5]

I went to the University of Chicago Law School before Mr. Scalia was on the faculty, and I have never met him. By all reports, he is a brilliant man who is gracious and funny in social settings. But his comments in this and other Court arguments along with some of his opinions lead me to believe that life tenure for Supreme Court Justices and perhaps other federal judges causes at least some of them to believe that they are omniscient.

A possible solution to such arrogance, as I suggested in a comment to a prior post, is to amend  the U.S. Constitution to impose a term limit on U.S. Supreme Court Justices and perhaps other federal judges. All 50 states in the U.S. and all major nations have age or term limits for high-court judges. The International Criminal Court limits its judges to one term of nine years. Such limits are not seen as restrictions on the necessary independence of the judiciary.

The U.S. Constitution does not specifically grant life tenure to the justices or other federal judges. The Constitution merely says, “The Judges, both of the supreme and inferior Courts, shall hold their Offices during good Behaviour . . . .” Paul Carrington, a Duke University law professor, has suggested that the “good Behaviour” provision was not intended to provide life-time appointments and that term limits could be imposed by statute.


[1]  This issue was phrased by the Supreme Court itself in granting review of the case. Previous posts have reviewed the Voting Rights Act of 1965; the Voting Rights Act of 2006; the prior Supreme Court case regarding the latter statute (Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District No. One v. Holder); and the decision of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit in the Shelby County case. The transcript of the recent Supreme Court arguments in Shelby County is available online as are the petitioner’s brief, the respondent’s brief for the U.S. Government and the reply brief for the petitioner in the case. Other briefs in the case for three intervenors, 19 amici curiae (friends of the court) supporting the petitioner and 28 amici curiae supporting the U.S. Government can also be found on the web. Excellent commentaries about the case are available on the respected scotusblog.

[2]  E.g., Liptak, Voting Rights Law Draws Skepticism from Justices, N.Y. Times (Feb. 27, 2013); Gerstein, 5 Takeaways from the Voting Rights Act arguments, Politico (Feb. 27, 2013).

[3] Roberts’ hostility to the Voting Rights Act apparently goes back to 1981 when as a young lawyer in the Department of Justice he was working on Reagan Administration efforts to weaken the Voting Rights Act.

[4]  E.g., Blum, The Supreme Court Can Update the Obsolete Voting Rights Act, W.S.J. (Feb. 24, 2013); Room for Debate: Is the Voting Rights Act Still Needed?, N.Y. Times (Feb. 27, 2013) (Shapiro; Pilder); Savage, Decision on Voting Law Could Limit Oversight, N.Y. Times (Feb. 28, 2013); Will, The Voting Rights Act stuck in the past, Wash. Post (Mar. 1, 2013).

[5] E.g., Room for Debate: Is the Voting Rights Act Still Needed?, N.Y. Times (Feb. 27, 2013) (Wydra; Charles & Fuentes-Rohwer; Garza; Smith), supra;  Savage, Decision on Voting Law Could Limit Oversight, N.Y. Times (Feb. 28, 2013), supra.

 

The D.C. Circuit’s Decision Upholding the Validity of the Voting Rights Act of 2006

On February 27, 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in a case challenging the constitutionality of an important provision in 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. Attorney General for any changes in their election laws.

Before we discuss that argument, we will review the decision that was the subject of that argument: the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit’s decision in Shelby County, Alabama v. Holder upholding, 2 to 1, the constitutionality of that statute and, therefore, affirming the trial court’s judgment to the same effect.[1]

Judge David S. Tatel
Judge David S. Tatel
Judge Thomas Griffith
Judge Thomas B. Griffith
Judge Stephen F. Williams
Judge Stephen F. Williams

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The opinion for the majority in the Circuit Court was written by Judge David S. Tatel, a President Clinton appointee in 1994 and a University of Chicago Law School classmate and friend of mine. He was joined by Circuit Judge Thomas B. Griffith, an appointee of President George W. Bush in 2005, while the dissenter was Circuit Judge Stephen F. Williams, an appointee in 1994 by President Reagan.

Opinion of the Circuit Court

The D.C. Circuit stressed that it was “bound by fundamental principles of judicial restraint” as repeatedly proclaimed by the U.S. Supreme Court. These precedents emphasize that “Congress’s laws are entitled to a ‘presumption of validity’” and that “when Congress acts pursuant to its enforcement authority under the Reconstruction Amendments [including the Fifteenth Amendment], its judgments about ‘what legislation is needed . . . are entitled to much deference.‘“  Such deference is paid “‘out of respect for [Congress’] . . .  authority to exercise the legislative power,’”and in recognition that Congress ”‘is far better equipped than the judiciary to amass and evaluate the vast amounts of data bearing upon legislative questions.’” (Citations omitted.)

Indeed, the Circuit Court quoted the Supreme Court’s opinion in deciding a prior case about this very statute when that Court emphasized that “judging the constitutionality of an Act of Congress is `the gravest and most delicate duty that [a court] is called on to perform,’'” and that “[t]he Fifteenth Amendment empowers `Congress,’ not the Court, to determine in the first instance what legislation is needed to enforce it.”

These long-standing principles of judicial restraint, I believe, are even more relevant and important, when Congress adds congressional findings of fact to the statute itself, as it did in the Voting Rights Act of 2006.

The D.C. Circuit then addressed the two concerns or questions about the Voting Rights Act of 2006 that the Supreme Court had raised in the Northwest Austin case.

First, are the current burdens imposed by section 5 “justified by current needs”?

Even though there has been significant progress in combatting racial discrimination in voting, the D.C. Circuit stressed that “Congress [had] found that this progress did not tell the whole story.

It documented ‘continued registration and turnout disparities’ in both Virginia and South Carolina.” In addition, “although the number of African Americans holding elected office had increased significantly, they continued to face barriers to election for statewide positions. Congress found that not one African American had yet been elected to statewide office in Mississippi, Louisiana, or South Carolina. In other covered states, “`often it is only after blacks have been first appointed to a vacancy that they are able to win statewide office as incumbents.'”

The D.C. Circuit also noted that “Congress considered other types of evidence that, in its judgment, ‘show[ed] that attempts to discriminate persist and evolve, such that Section 5 is still needed to protect minority voters in the future.’  It heard accounts of specific instances of racial discrimination in voting. It heard analysis and opinions by experts on all sides of the issue.”

Congress considered six distinct categories of evidence, according to the D.C. Circuit: “(1) [U.S.] Attorney General objections issued to block proposed voting changes that would, in the Attorney General’s judgment, have the purpose or effect of discriminating against minorities; (2) ‘more information requests’ issued when the Attorney General believes that the information submitted by a covered jurisdiction is insufficient to allow a preclearance determination; (3) successful lawsuits brought under section 2 of the Act; (4) federal observers dispatched to monitor elections under section 8 of the Act; (5) successful section 5 enforcement actions filed against covered jurisdictions for failing to submit voting changes for preclearance, as well as requests for preclearance denied by the United States District Court for the District of Columbia; and (6) evidence that the mere existence of section 5 deters officials from even proposing discriminatory voting changes.”

Finally, said the D.C. Circuit, “Congress heard evidence that case-by-case section 2 litigation was inadequate to remedy the racial discrimination in voting that persisted in covered jurisdictions.”

The Circuit court then carefully reviewed the legislative record and concluded that it contained “sufficient probative evidence from which Congress could reasonably conclude that racial discrimination in voting in covered jurisdictions is so serious and pervasive that section 2 litigation remains an inadequate remedy.”

Second, does the congressional record support the requisite ‘showing that the statute’s disparate geographic coverage is sufficiently related to the problem that it targets?

In addressing this issue, the Circuit court emphasized that the statute’s disparate geographic coverage depended not only on section 4(b)’s formula, but on the statute as a whole, including its mechanisms for bail-in and bailout. Therefore, for this court the question was whether the statute as a whole, not just the section 4(b) formula, ensures that jurisdictions subject to section 5 are those in which unconstitutional voting discrimination is concentrated.

After reviewing in detail the congressional record on this issue and the total structure of the statute, including bailout and bail-in, the D.C. Circuit concluded that the statute “continues to single out the jurisdictions in which discrimination is concentrated.”

Dissenting Opinion

The dissenting opinion of Judge Williams concluded that the formula in section 4(b) of the statute was unconstitutional because the significant burdens it imposed on “covered jurisdictions” were not “congruent and proportional” to the problems of racially discriminatory voting laws that it targeted.

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[1] Prior posts examined the original Voting Rights Act of 1965, the Voting Rights Act of 2006 and the prior U.S. Supreme Court case regarding the latter statute.

 

Prior U.S. Supreme Court Case Regarding the Voting Rights Act of 2006

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. [1] 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. [2]

 Opinion of the Court

Chief Justice John Roberts
Chief Justice John Roberts

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
Associate 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.”

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[1]  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.

[2]  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).

The Voting Rights Act of 2006

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. [1] This provision extended for 25 years 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.[2]

Before we discuss that argument, we will look at the Voting Rights Act of 2006.[3]

Its stated Purpose in Section 2(a) was “to ensure that the right of all citizens to vote, including the right to register to vote and cast meaningful votes, is preserved and protected as guaranteed by the Constitution.” The last reference, of course, included the Constitution’s Fifteenth Amendment: “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 2006 statute did that by reauthorizing and extending for 25 years (until 2032) the following essential provisions of the original Voting Rights Act of 1965:

  • Section 2 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.” 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.
  • Section 5 (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.”  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.”
  • Such approval or 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.”
  • The “covered jurisdictions” subject to section 5 were identified in section 4(b), as subsequently modified, as any state or political subdivision of a state that “maintained a voting test or device as of November 1, 1972, and had less than 50% voter registration or turnout in the 1972 presidential election.”
  • Upon satisfying certain criteria a state or other jurisdiction could obtain “bailout” from section 5 or be subject to “bail-in” to such coverage.

The Voting Rights Act of 2006 was overwhelmingly adopted by the Congress: 98 to 0 in the Senate and 390 to 33 (with 9 not voting) in the House. In doing so, the Congress acted on the basis of a legislative record over 15,000 pages in length, including statistics, findings by courts and the Justice Department, and first-hand accounts of discrimination.[4]

Given this extensive record before Congress, Section 2(b) of the Voting Rights Act of 2006 contains the following extensive congressional Findings:

  • “(1) Significant progress has been made in eliminating first generation barriers experienced by minority voters, including increased numbers of registered minority voters, minority voter turnout, and minority representation in Congress, State legislatures, and local elected offices. This progress is the direct result of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
  • “(2) However, vestiges of discrimination in voting continue to exist as demonstrated by second generation barriers constructed to prevent minority voters from fully participating in the electoral process.
  • “(3) The continued evidence of racially polarized voting in each of the jurisdictions covered by the expiring provisions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 demonstrates that racial and language minorities remain politically vulnerable, warranting the continued protection of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
  • “(4) Evidence of continued discrimination includes—
  • “(A) the hundreds of objections interposed, requests for more information submitted followed by voting changes withdrawn from consideration by jurisdictions covered by the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and section 5 enforcement actions undertaken by the Department of Justice in covered jurisdictions since 1982 that prevented election practices,such as annexation, at-large voting, and the use of multimember districts, from being enacted to dilute minority voting strength;
  • “ (B) the number of requests for declaratory judgments denied by the United States District Court for the District of Columbia;
  • “(C) the continued filing of section 2 cases that originated in covered jurisdictions; and
  • “(D) the litigation pursued by the Department of Justice since 1982 to enforce sections 4(e), 4(f)(4), and 203 of such Act to ensure that all language minority citizens have full access to the political process.
  • “(5) The evidence clearly shows the continued need for Federal oversight in jurisdictions covered by the Voting Rights Act of 1965 since 1982, as demonstrated in the counties certified by the Attorney General for Federal examiner and observer coverage and the tens of thousands of Federal observers that have been dispatched to observe elections in covered jurisdictions.
  • “(6) The effectiveness of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 has been significantly weakened by the United States Supreme Court decisions in Reno v. Bossier Parish II and Georgia v. Ashcroft, which have misconstrued Congress’ original intent in enacting the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and narrowed the protections afforded by section 5 of such Act.
  • “(7) Despite the progress made by minorities under the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the evidence before Congress reveals that 40 years has not been a sufficient amount of time to eliminate the vestiges of discrimination following nearly 100 years of disregard for the dictates of the 15th amendment and to ensure that the right of all citizens to vote is protected as guaranteed by the Constitution.
  • “(8) Present day discrimination experienced by racial and language minority voters is contained in evidence, including the objections interposed by the Department of Justice in covered jurisdictions; the section 2 litigation filed to prevent dilutive techniques from adversely affecting minority voters; the enforcement actions filed to protect language minorities; and the tens of thousands of Federal observers dispatched to monitor polls in jurisdictions covered by the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
  • “(9) The record compiled by Congress demonstrates that, without the continuation of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 protections, racial and language minority citizens will be deprived of the opportunity to exercise their right to vote, or will have their votes diluted, undermining the significant gains made by minorities in the last 40 years.”

PresBush signign VRAOn July 27, 2006, President George W. Bush signed this statute in a ceremony on the South Lawn of the White House (as shown in the photo to the left). Attending the event were Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez and other members of the Cabinet, the leaders of the United States Senate and House of Representatives, representatives of the Fannie Lou Hamer family,  representatives of the Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute, members of the Martin Luther King, Jr. family and  civil rights leaders, including Dr. Dorothy Height, Julian Bond (the Chairman of the NAACP), Bruce Gordon, Reverend Lowery, Marc Morial, Juanita Abernathy, Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton and Dr. Benjamin and Frances Hooks.

On that occasion President Bush said, “By reauthorizing this act, Congress has reaffirmed its belief that all men are created equal; its belief that the new founding started by the signing of the [Voting Rights Act of 1965] . . .  by President Johnson is worthy of our great nation to continue.”

That original statute, President Bush continued, “rose from the courage shown on a Selma bridge one Sunday afternoon in March of 1965 . . . [when] African Americans . . .  marched across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in a protest intended to highlight the unfair practices that kept them off the voter rolls.The brutal response [to the marchers that day] . . . stung the conscience of a slumbering America. . . . One week after Selma, President Lyndon Johnson took to the airwaves to announce that he planned to submit legislation that would bring African Americans into the civic life of our nation. Five months after Selma, he signed the Voting Rights Act [of 1965] into law in the Rotunda of our nation’s capitol.”

President Bush recognized that in the “four decades since the Voting Rights Act was first passed, we’ve made progress toward equality, yet the work for a more perfect union is never ending.” By signing the Voting rights Act of 2006, President Bush concluded, we “renew a bill that helped bring a community on the margins into the life of American democracy. My administration will vigorously enforce the provisions of this law, and we will defend it in court.”

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[1] 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, Pub. L. 109-246, 120 Stat. 577 (2006).

[2] The states now subject to section 5 are Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia.

[3]  A prior post discussed the original Voting Rights Act of 1965. Other posts will discuss two other predicates for the recent Supreme Court argument: the previous Supreme Court case 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 that is the subject of the that argument (Shelby County, Alabama v. Holder).

[4]  The 2006 Act also overruled two Supreme Court decisions interpreting the statute.