Supreme Court Strikes Down Key Part of Voting Rights Act

Adam Liptak, New York Times, June 26, 2013

The Supreme Court on Tuesday effectively struck down the heart of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 by a 5-to-4 vote, ruling that Congress had not provided adequate justification for subjecting nine states, mostly in the South, to federal oversight.

“In 1965, the states could be divided into two groups: those with a recent history of voting tests and low voter registration and turnout, and those without those characteristics,” Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. wrote for the majority. “Congress based its coverage formula on that distinction. Today the nation is no longer divided along those lines, yet the Voting Rights Act continues to treat it as if it were.”

The court divided along ideological lines, and the two sides drew sharply different lessons from the history of the civil rights movement and gave very different accounts of whether racial minorities continue to face discrimination in voting.

President Obama, whose election as the nation’s first black president was cited by critics of the law as evidence that it was no longer needed, said he was “deeply disappointed” by the ruling. “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,” he said.

The decision will have immediate practical consequences. Changes in voting procedures that had required advance federal approval, including voter identification laws and restrictions on early voting, will now be subject only to after-the-fact litigation.

“With today’s decision,” said Greg Abbott, Texas’ attorney general, “the state’s voter ID law will take effect immediately. Redistricting maps passed by the legislature may also take effect without approval from the federal government.”

Chief Justice Roberts said that Congress remained free to try to impose federal oversight on states where voting rights were at risk, but must do so based on contemporary data. When the law was last renewed, in 2006, Congress relied on data from decades before to decide which states and localities were covered. {snip}

Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony M. Kennedy, Clarence Thomas and Samuel A. Alito Jr. joined the majority opinion. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg dissented, joined by Justices Stephen G. Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan.

The majority held that the coverage formula in Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act, originally passed in 1965 and most recently updated by Congress in 1975, was unconstitutional. The section determines which states must receive preclearance from the Justice Department or a federal court in Washington before they make minor changes to voting procedures, like relocating a polling place, or major ones, like redrawing electoral districts.

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