Justices Strike Key Parts of Voting Rights Act

     (CN) – The Voting Rights Act unconstitutionally requires states and localities with a history of race discrimination to clear changes to election procedures with the federal government, the Supreme Court ruled Tuesday on a 5-4 vote.     
     The justices struck down Sections 4 and 5 of the 1965 law, which created a “coverage formula” and imposed a so-called “preclearance” requirement.
     The formula defined areas with a history of race discrimination based on voter tests and turnout from the 1960s and 1970s, while the preclearance requirement forced certain states and counties to seek approval from federal authorities before changing election procedures or district lines.
     The preclearance requirement was originally aimed at rooting out bias in areas with a history of race discrimination.
     But Chief Justice John Roberts, writing for the conservative majority, said conditions have changed so much in the past 50 years that the law’s “extraordinary measures” can no longer be justified.
     “There is no denying … that the conditions that originally justified these measures no longer characterize voting in the covered jurisdictions,” he wrote.
     The challenged provisions were intended to expire after five years, but Congress has since extended them repeatedly and expanded their coverage. States like Alaska, Arizona and Texas were swept up by the requirements when lawmakers changed the definition of “test or device” to include the practice of providing English-only voting materials in places where more than 5 percent of the electorate spoke another language.
     In 1982, Congress reauthorized the Voting Rights Act for another 25 years without altering its coverage formula.
     The Supreme Court rejected constitutional challenges to these reauthorizations over the years, but when Congress extended the law for another 25 years in 2006 and amended it to bar even more conduct, the justices “expressed serious doubts” about its continued constitutionality, Roberts said.
     “Things have changed in the South,” he wrote in a 2009 decision allowing a Texas utility to bail out from the act’s coverage. “Voter turnout and registration rates now approach parity.”
     With an 8-1 vote, the justices in that case cautiously sidestepped the constitutional issues and narrowed the scope of the law by expanding the bailout provision.     
     In 2010, Shelby County, Ala., filed a federal lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the same sections. It did not seek bailout; it wanted the court to declare the sections unconstitutional and block their enforcement.
     A federal judge upheld the provisions, and the D.C. Circuit affirmed.
     In Tuesday’s ruling, Roberts said the Voting Rights Act “sharply departs” from the fundamental principle of equal sovereignty among states.
     “State must beseech the Federal Government for permission to implement laws that they would otherwise have the right to enact and execute on their own,” he wrote.
     “And despite the tradition of equal sovereignty, the Act applies to only nine States (and several additional counties). While one State waits months or years and expends funds to implement a validly enacted law, its neighbor can typically put the same law into effect immediately, through the normal legislative process,” he added. (Parentheses in original.)
     These “stringent remedies” no longer apply, Roberts said, as “things have changed dramatically” over the years.
     “The tests and devices that blocked access to the ballot have been forbidden nationwide for over 40 years,” he wrote.
     In dissent, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said the challenged provisions “remain justifiable.”
     “Recognizing that large progress has been made, Congress determined, based on a voluminous record, that the scourge of discrimination was not yet extirpated,” she wrote.
     “With overwhelming support in both Houses, Congress concluded that, for two prime reasons, [section 5] should continue in force, unabated. First, continuance would facilitate completion of the impressive gains thus far made; and second, continuance would guard against backsliding. Those assessments were well within Congress’ province to make and should elicit this Court’s unstinting approbation.
     Joining her in dissent were Justices Sonia Sotomayor, Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan.
     Justice Clarence Thomas wrote a concurring opinion.

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