The U.S. Supreme Court issued a decision Tuesday that dealt a blow to a key provision of the Voting Rights Act, striking the core of the civil rights legislation until Congress could agree on a new formula for determining which states needed extra oversight on voting.
Chief Justice John Roberts wrote the opinion, which ruled unconstitutional Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that determined which states with a history of discrimination would be required to obtain federal permission before making any changes to voting procedures.
The 5-4 ruling, which determined the law was outmoded based on "decades-old data and eradicated practices," said the it could not be enforced until Congress determined new standards by which jurisdictions would be covered.
“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," Roberts said in his decision.
Roberts's opinion distinguished between the specified coverage of Section 4 -- which only dealt with nine states -- from Section 5.
"Our decision in no way affects the permanent, nationwide ban on racial discrimination in voting found in [Section] 2," he wrote. "We issue no holding on [Section] 5 itself, only on the coverage formula. Congress may draft another formula based on current conditions."
Roberts was joined by Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy and Samuel Alito.
Justice Clarence Thomas wrote a concurring opinion, adding that he would have also used the same criteria to strike down Section 5, which sets out the "preclearance" requirements for the jurisdictions identified in Section 4.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg wrote the dissent, and was joined by Justices Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan.
Ginsberg read her dissent from the bench, a move meant to emphasize her strong disagreement with the ruling.
Both the ruling opinion and the dissent used the law's success to argue their side: For the majority, the improved voter turnout and registration among minorities was proof that the covered jurisdictions no longer necessarily needed extra oversight, while the dissent pointed to some 700 objections from the Department of Justice that prevented discrimnatory practices.
The Voting Rights Act is considered among the most important pieces of civil rights legislation, and has been renewed in whole four times since it was passed in 1965.
However, the data used to determined which states were required to seek permission from the Department of Justice to make any changes to election procedures -- including dates, polling places, and hours -- was based on election data from 1972.
Tuesday's ruling sends the debate back to Congress, where deep political divisions mean any attempt at passing new provisions would face a steep challenges.
The nine states that, until Tuesday's decision, required preclearance under Section 4 were:
- Alabama, except for the city of Pinson
- Georgia, except for the city of Sandy Springs
- South Carolina
- Texas, except for Jefferson County Drainage District Number Seven and Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District Number One, and
- Virginia, except for 24 counties and seven independent cities.
In addition, specific counties in California, Florida, New York, North Carolina and South Dakota were identified by Section 4.
President Obama issued a statement Tuesday, expressing his frustration with the court's decision:
"I am deeply disappointed with the Supreme Court’s decision today. For nearly 50 years, the Voting Rights Act – enacted and repeatedly renewed by wide bipartisan majorities in Congress – has helped secure the right to vote for millions of Americans. 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.
As a nation, we’ve made a great deal of progress towards guaranteeing every American the right to vote. But, as the Supreme Court recognized, voting discrimination still exists. And while today’s decision is a setback, it doesn’t represent the end of our efforts to end voting discrimination. I am calling on Congress to pass legislation to ensure every American has equal access to the polls. My Administration will continue to do everything in its power to ensure a fair and equal voting process."
Here is the court's full decision: