Supreme Court allows Voting Right Act exemption

The Supreme Court on Monday sidestepped the larger question of the constitutionality of the Voting Rights Act while reversing a lower court ruling on removal from governmental oversight.

Chief Justice John Roberts delivered the opinion of the 8-1 court in The Northwest Utility District Number One v. Holder, in which the district claimed that no discriminatory practices take place within their boundaries and wanted to “bail out” from federal oversight.

A three-judge panel in 2008 did not address the bailout question, noting that the district did not meet the standards for a bailout. The panel did, however, affirm the constitutionality of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act.

“The evil that Section 5 is meant to address may no longer be concentrated in the jurisdictions singled out for pre-clearance," Roberts wrote in Monday's opinion.

“The statute’s coverage formula is based on data that is now more than 35 years old, and there is considerable evidence that it fails to account for current political conditions.”

Roberts added, “The historic accomplishments of the Voting Rights Act are undeniable,” and wrote that the court “will not shrink from our duty as the bulwar[k] of a limited constitution against legislative encroachments." 

Ultimately, the court decided not to act on the constitutional question, ruling, “Th[e] constitutional question has attracted ardent briefs from dozens of interested parties, but the importance of the question does not justify our rushing to decide it. Quite the contrary: Our usual practice is to avoid the unnecessary resolution of constitutional questions.”

In a lone partial dissent, Justice Clarence Thomas said he would have resolved the case and held that  Section 5 is unconstitutional.

"The violence, intimidation and subterfuge that led Congress to pass Section 5 and this court to uphold it no longer remains," Thomas said.

“Voter turnout and registration rates now approach parity,” he wrote. “Blatantly discriminatory evasions of federal decrees are rare. And minority candidates hold office at unprecedented levels.”

Monday’s decision comes three years after Congress reauthorized the act. In 2006, the House passed the measure by a 390-33 margin and the Senate approved it 98-0. The majority of members who took to the floor during that reauthorization debate asserted that the law is as necessary now as it was in 1965.