A divided Supreme Court on Tuesday invalidated a crucial component of the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965, ruling that Congress has not taken into account the nation’s racial progress when singling out certain states for federal oversight.
The vote was 5 to 4, with Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and the other conservative members of the court in the majority.
The court did not strike down the law itself or the provision that calls for special scrutiny of states with a history of discrimination. But it said Congress must come up with a new formula based on current data to determine which states should be subject to the requirements.
Proponents of the law, which protects minority voting rights, called the ruling a death knell. It will be almost impossible for a Congress bitterly divided along partisan lines to come up with such an agreement, they said.
There could be immediate consequences from the court’s ruling. Just hours after the ruling, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott said his state will move forward with a voter-identification law that had been stopped by a panel of federal judges and will carry out redistricting changes that had been mired in court battles.
The act covers the Southern states of Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia, as well as Alaska, Arizona and parts of seven other states. It requires them to receive “pre-clearance” from the U.S. attorney general or federal judges before making any changes to election or voting laws.
Roberts said the court had warned Congress four years ago, in a separate case, that its decision to continue using a formula based on “40-year-old facts” would lead to serious constitutional questions.
“Congress could have updated the coverage formula at that time, but did not do so,” Roberts wrote. “Its failure to act leaves us today with no choice but to declare [the formula] unconstitutional.”
He added, “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.”
He was joined by Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony M. Kennedy, Clarence Thomas and Samuel A. Alito Jr.
One sign of racial progress has been the election of the nation’s first African American president, who said Tuesday that he was “deeply disappointed” in the decision.
“For nearly 50 years, the Voting Rights Act . . . has helped secure the right to vote for millions of Americans,” 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.”
In Virginia, the state government presumably will no longer need approval from Washington for its new voter-ID law. The law could still be subject to a legal challenge, but the burden would be shifted to plaintiffs to show that the law would hurt minority voters.
Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., who called the decision a “serious setback for voting rights,” said his department will “continue to carefully monitor jurisdictions around the country for voting changes that may hamper voting rights.”
“Let me be very clear,” Holder said. “We will not hesitate to take swift enforcement action, using every legal tool that remains available to us, against any jurisdiction that seeks to take advantage of the Supreme Court’s ruling by hindering eligible citizens’ full and free exercise of the franchise.”
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg emphasized the liberals’ disagreement with the decision by reading her dissent from the bench. She said the majority not only misread the lessons of the nation’s racial progress but also inserted itself into a decision that the Constitution’s Civil War amendments specifically leave for 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 in her dissent.
She noted that the 2006 extension of the Voting Rights Act, and the continued use of the formula in Section 4, was approved unanimously in the Senate and signed by President George W. Bush. “What has become of the court’s usual restraint?” she asked from the bench.
She invoked the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and the march from Selma to Montgomery. “ ‘The arc of the moral universe is long,’ he said, ‘but it bends toward justice’ if there is a steadfast commitment to see the task through to completion,” Ginsburg said. “That commitment has been disserved by today’s decision.”
She was joined in dissent by Justices Stephen G. Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan.