LED BY Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., the Supreme Court on Tuesday gutted a key element of the Voting Rights Act, one of the most potent anti-discrimination tools Congress ever devised. It was an audacious ruling devoid of the restraint the chief justice and his colleagues in the majority should have shown.
Among other things, the act obliges certain states and localities to “pre-clear” any change in electoral policy or procedure with either the Justice Department or a federal court. In its 5 to 4 decision, the court didn’t squash the notion that such a powerful measure could be acceptable. Instead, the majority held that the formula Congress used to determine which jurisdictions to subject to pre-clearance — mostly in the South, with its grotesque history of racial discrimination — was an artifact from the 1960s with “no logical relation to the present day.”
Yet, Congress concluded in 2006, the last time that it reauthorized the Voting Rights Act, that the formula was still very relevant. And, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg pointed out in a spirited dissent, federal lawmakers have wide latitude under the 14th and 15th amendments to preserve meaningful access to the vote, particularly against policy or procedural manipulations that limit the franchise of racial minorities. That’s why a previous high-court holding found that those lawmakers could use “any rational means” to combat racial discrimination at the ballot box — a permissive standard.