Supreme Court strikes down part of Voting Rights Act
WASHINGTON (NBC) -
The Supreme Court on Tuesday struck down a key part of the Voting
Rights Act of 1965 — the map that determines which states must get
federal permission before they change their voting laws.
ruling, a 5-4 decision by Chief Justice John Roberts, leaves the future
of the law deeply uncertain because it will be up to a sharply divided
Congress to redraw the map, if it can agree on one at all. Civil rights
activists called the decision devastating.
The Voting Rights Act
requires nine states with a history of discrimination at the polls,
mostly in the South, to get approval from the Justice Department or a
special panel of judges before they change their voting laws. The rule
also applies to 12 cities and 57 counties elsewhere.
The law was
renewed most recently in 2006, but the coverage map still uses election
data from 1972 to determine who is covered. Some jurisdictions
complained that they were being punished for the sins of many decades
ago. An Alabama county brought the case.
"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," Roberts wrote for the court.
signed by President Lyndon Johnson, is considered the most important
piece of civil rights legislation ever passed. Congress has renewed it
four times, and the 2006 reauthorization won a huge majority in the
House and passed the Senate 98-0. That renewal extended the law through
As part of the ruling Tuesday, the court published a chart
comparing white and black voter registration in 1965 and in 2004 in the
six states originally covered by the law. In Alabama, for example, the
white registration rate was 69 percent and the black rate 19 percent in
1965. By 2004, that gap had all but disappeared — 74 percent for whites
and 73 percent for blacks.
"There is no doubt that these improvements are in large part because of the
Voting Rights Act," Roberts wrote. "The Act has proved immensely
successful at redressing racial discrimination and integrating the
However, the chief justice wrote: "If Congress
had started from scratch in 2006, it plainly could not have enacted the
present coverage formula."
The decision was not a surprise because
the court's conservatives had suggested that they had reservations
about the law, said Tom Goldstein, the publisher of the influential
SCOTUSblog and a Supreme Court analyst for NBC News.
He said that present-day politics would make it "unbelievably tough" for Congress to agree on any new coverage map.
was joined by Justices Samuel Alito, Anthony Kennedy and Antonin
Scalia. Justice Clarence Thomas wrote a concurring opinion and said that
he would have struck down not just the map but the requirement that any
jurisdiction get federal clearance to change a voting law.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote a dissenting opinion and was joined by the
three other members of the court's more liberal wing. She said that the
court should defer to Congress.
"When confronting the most
constitutionally invidious form of discrimination, and the most
fundamental right in our democratic system, Congress' power to act is at
its height," Ginsburg wrote.
The case was brought by Shelby
County, Ala., which urged the Supreme Court to strike down both the
permission requirement itself and the formula that determines which
jurisdictions are covered.
The justices, particularly those on the
court's conservative wing, had expressed deep skepticism when the case
was argued in February that the permission requirement was still
The wide margins of approval in Congress, Justice
Antonin Scalia said at the argument, are likely the result of
"perpetuation of racial entitlement" — a remark that angered some
veterans of the civil rights movement.
"Whenever a society adopts
racial entitlements," Scalia said, "it is very difficult to get out of
them through the normal political processes."
And the court
signaled four years ago, in a decision that narrowly rejected a
challenge to the permission requirement, that it had doubts about
whether at least parts of the Voting Rights Act were constitutional.
have changed in the South," Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in that
decision. "Blatantly discriminatory evasions of federal decrees are