Supreme Court upholds Voting Rights Act without reaching constitutional question

[JURIST] The US Supreme Court [official website; JURIST news archive] on Monday upheld [opinion, PDF] a controversial provision of the Voting Rights Act (VRA) [text] but avoided a constitutional question. The Court ruled 8-1 in Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District Number One v. Holder [Cornell LII backgrounder; JURIST report] that the VRA permits the appellant municipality to "bail out" from the preclearance requirement of Section 5 [DOJ backgrounder] if it can establish a history of compliance with the VRA, but declined to rule on the constitutionality of Congress's 25-year extension of the section. The US District Court for the District of Columbia had found [opinion, PDF] in favor of the federal government that the municipality could not "bail out" from the preclearance requirement. In reversing that decision, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote:


More than 40 years ago, this Court concluded that "exceptional conditions" prevailing in certain parts of the country justified extraordinary legislation otherwise unfamiliar to our federal system. In part due to the success of that legislation, we are now a very different Nation. Whether conditions continue to justify such legislation is a difficult constitutional question we do not answer today. We conclude instead that the Voting Rights Act permits all political subdivisions, including the district in this case, to seek relief from its preclearance requirements.

Justice Clarence Thomas filed an opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part. Thomas would have decided the constitutional question and found that Section 5 was unconstitutional.

Section 5 requires prior review before changes in voting laws can be enacted in certain states. Enacted in 1965, the requirements were only supposed to be in place for five years. Section 5 has since been extended several times. In 1982, Congress extended it for 25 years. The plaintiff was a municipal utility district in Texas that wanted to be exempted from the requirement and was challenging the most recent extension.

 

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