(CN) – The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday deflected constitutional challenges to the Voting Rights Act with an 8-1 ruling that simply narrowed the scope of the law, allowing a Texas utility district and other governmental bodies to change election procedures without federal approval.
Chief Justice John Roberts recognized that judging an act of Congress is “the gravest and most delicate duty that this court is called on to perform,” as former Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes put it. However, the chief justice deferred to the high court’s “well-established principle” of avoiding constitutional issues if there’s another ground on which to decide the case.
The majority found alternate ground by expanding the Voting Rights Act’s “bailout” provision, which allows certain political subdivisions to duck a so-called “preclearance obligation.” This requirement, aimed at rooting out racial discrimination in elections, forces political entities to seek approval from federal authorities before changing election procedures or district lines.
The preclearance requirement is required even though there is no evidence that the district has ever racially discriminated in elections. Further, the requirement does not apply to all states. Congress confined it to eight states and parts of eight others – all “areas of flagrant disenfranchisement,” according to Roberts.
A federal appeals court in Washington, D.C., determined that the Texas utility district did not qualify for the bailout, because it did not register its own voters. The district appealed, claiming the Act imposes no such restriction on the bailout, and that if it does, the preclearance requirement is unconstitutional.
The high court declined to rule on the constitutional issue, but found that the bailout provision does apply to the Texas district.
Roberts noted that racial discrimination in voting has greatly diminished since the Act’s passage. “Past success alone, however, is not adequate justification to retain the preclearance requirements,” he wrote. “It may be that these improvements are insufficient and that conditions continue to warrant preclearance under the Act. But the Act imposes current burdens and must be justified by current needs.”
The Act must be interpreted to allow all political subdivisions, including the Texas district, to seek bailout from the preclearance requirement, Roberts concluded.
Although the Act’s narrow definition of “political subdivision” does not explicitly include the district, the high court relied on precedent and the Act’s structure to support a broader reading.
The government argued that an expansive interpretation is foreclosed by City of Rome, in which the justices refused to let a city bring an independent bailout action under the Voting Rights Act.
However, Roberts said Congress “expressly repudiated” that ruling in 1982 in favor of “piecemeal” bailout. “In other words, Congress decided that a jurisdiction covered because it was within a covered state need not remain covered for as long as the state did,” Roberts explained. “If the subdivision met the bailout requirements, it could bail out, even if the state could not.”
Justice Clarence Thomas agreed with the majority’s decision to expand the bailout provision, but saw no reason to sidestep the constitutional issues. “I would therefore decide the constitutional issue presented and hold that (the preclearance requirement) exceeds Congress’ power to enforce the Fifteenth Amendment,” he wrote.