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Supreme Court Rejects Statute of Voting Rights Act

Today the Supreme Court ruled that a statute requiring preclearance for changing voting guidelines is unconstitutional.

In a five to four decision with the opinion written [PDF] by Chief Justice John Roberts, the Supreme Court ruled that Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act (VRA), which determines which districts have to submit changes in their voting practice and regulation regardless of size to the Department of Justice (DOJ) in accordance with Section 5 of the VRA, is unconstitutional. In doing so, the Court essentially nullified Section 5 requiring preclearance in voting regulation changes. Section 5 has been used to stop over 700 discriminatory laws from going into effect between 1982 and 2006.

Roberts and the majority opinion argued that the formula determining which state and local governments must submit their changes is outdated [PDF] and therefore can no longer be used to require preclearance. While this decision subsequently voids the preclearance process, the majority did not rule preclearance requirement in Section 5 unconstitutional. Instead, the Court gave Congress the responsibility to create a new formula to determine who must comply with preclearance requirements. In a concurring opinion, Associate Justice Clarence Thomas wrote that he would have urged the Court to also overturn Section 5.

In a dissenting opinion [PDF], Justices Elena Kagan, Sonia Sotomayor, and Stephen Breyer joined Ruth Bader Ginsburg in arguing that since Congress determined the formula in Section 4 was still accurate there was a demonstrated need to retain it. Ginsburg lays out the history of the Voting Rights Act and the various challenges and reauthorizations it has faced. Ginsburg, et al., also argue that Congress is aware that the formula may need to be revised in the future based on the time frame Congress determined for reauthorization.

In her dissent, Ginsburg writes [PDF] "The sad irony of today's decision lies in its utter failure to grasp why the VRA has proven effective... In truth, the evolution of voting discrimination into more subtle second-generation barriers is powerful evidence that a remedy as effective as preclearance remains vital to protect minority voting rights and prevent backsliding." She continues, "For a half century, a concerted effort has been made to end racial discrimination in voting. Thanks to the Voting Rights Act, progress once the subject of a dream has been achieved and continues to be made."

In conclusion, Ginsburg writes "After exhaustive evidence-gathering and deliberative process, Congress reauthorized the VRA, including the coverage provision, with overwhelming bipartisan support... In my judgment, the Court errs egregiously by overriding Congress' decision."

Civil rights advocates around the country have denounced the decision. President Obama said in a statement, "Today's decision invalidating one of its core provisions upsets decades of well-established practices that help make sure voting is fair, especially in places where voting discrimination has been historically prevalent." NAACP President and CEO Benjamin Todd Jealous decried, "This decision is outrageous. The Court's majority put politics over decades of precedent and the rights of voters." Eleanor Smeal, President of the Feminist Majority, said "The fundamental responsibility of the Supreme Court is to protect minority rights, especially the most basic right in a democracy, the right to vote. The Court has failed in this responsibility."

Media Resources: NAACP 6/25/2013; Office of the Press Secretary 6/25/2013; Reuters 6/25/2013; Shelby County v. Holder 6/25/2013; Feminist Majority 6/25/2013

© Feminist Majority Foundation, publisher of Ms. magazine

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