Supreme Court strikes key provision of Voting Rights Act

[JURIST] The US Supreme Court [official website] ruled [opinion, PDF] 5-4 Tuesday in Shelby County v. Holder [SCOTUSblog backgrounder; JURIST report] that section 4 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (VRA) [Cornell LII backgrounder] is unconstitutional, and its formula can no longer be used as a basis for subjecting jurisdictions to preclearance. Section 5 of the VRA requires jurisdictions with a history of preventing minority groups from voting to receive preclearance from the US Department of Justice or a three-judge panel of the US District Court for the District of Columbia [official websites] before making any changes to their voting laws. Section 4 provides a formula for determining which jurisdictions are covered under section 5. In an opinion by Chief Justice John Roberts, the court struck down Section 4:

Striking down an Act of Congress "is the gravest and most delicate duty that this Court is called on to perform." ... We do not do so lightly. That is why, in 2009, we took care to avoid ruling on the constitutionality of the Voting Rights Act when asked to do so, and instead resolved the case then before us on statutory grounds. But in issuing that decision, we expressed our broader concerns about the constitutionality of the Act. Congress could have updated the coverage formula at that time, but did not do so. Its failure to act leaves us today with no choice but to declare §4(b) unconstitutional. The formula in that section can no longer be used as a basis for subjecting jurisdictions to preclearance.
Roberts noted that the court's ruling does not affect "the permanent, nationwide ban on racial discrimination in voting found in §2." He also clarified that the court has issued no ruling on the constitutionality of section 5 and that "Congress may draft another formula based on current conditions."

Justice Clarence Thomas filed a concurring opinion. Thomas would have struck down section 5 based on the same reasoning the court used to strike section 4. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg filed a dissenting opinion, joined by Justices Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan. According to Ginsburg, Congress, and not the Court should decide whether section 5 "remains justifiable." Congress voted in 2006 to extend the VRA [JURIST report] for another 25 years.

 

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