Court narrows Voting Right Act, sparking concern

A Supreme Court ruling that narrows the landmark Voting Rights Act has sparked bipartisan concern on Capitol Hill.

On Monday, the court unanimously limited the reach of the landmark civil rights act but did not overturn it, as some civil rights advocates had feared it might. Justice Clarence Thomas issued a lone partial dissent, opining that the "the violence, intimidation and subterfuge that led Congress to pass Section 5 and this court to uphold it no longer remains" and should be held unconstitutional.

ADVERTISEMENT
The Voting Rights Act, first passed in 1965, required states and municipalities in the South to clear in advance any changes to their voting or election requirements with the Justice Department in Washington.

Three years ago, Congress reauthorized the bill, including the provision requiring DoJ approval of any proposed change to election and voting standards, but a small Texas water district challenged it as unfair and outdated.  

States across the South will remain subject to the law, but counties, cities and school districts can go to court and seek an exemption. In making a determination about the exemptions, courts will scrutinize the municipality’s record over the last decade, which must be free of any violations of the act.

“Things have changed in the South,” declared Chief Justice John Roberts when the decision was announced. For instance, he said, blacks and whites now register and vote in the same percentages.

“These improvements are no doubt due in significant part to the Voting Rights Act itself and stand as a monument to its success,” he continued. “Past success alone, however, is not adequate justification to retain the pre-clearance requirements.”

Congress extended the Voting Rights Act three years ago, when Republicans held the majority in both the House and Senate.

On Monday, Republican and Democratic authors of the reauthorization issued statements expressing deep disappointment with the court’s ruling.

“The Voting Rights Act has been the crown jewel of civil rights legislation,” said Rep. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.), who chaired the Judiciary panel when the act was rewritten. “There is an extensive record that shows that discrimination still continues, yet the Supreme Court has unfortunately taken away this important protection for minorities to have their votes fairly cast and fairly counted.”

Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) said he was relieved that the court didn’t overturn the entire law but expressed concern about the exemption to the pre-clearance provisions.

“The Supreme Court has shown insufficient deference to the authority and consideration of Congress,” he said. “This legislation was passed by both the Senate and House overwhelmingly, and was signed into law by President Bush, who also supported its constitutionality.”

Liberal civil rights groups had been bracing for a broader attack on the law and breathed a sigh of relief Monday.
For instance, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, which led the arguments in the case during the hearing in April, applauded the court’s decision.

“The utility district brought this case to tear out the heart of the Voting Rights Act,” said Debo Adegbile, the legal defense fund’s director of litigation. “Today, it failed. The Voting Rights Act remains one of Congress’s greatest legacies.”

The Austin utility district, backed by a conservative group opposed to the law, brought the challenge, arguing that it should be allowed to opt out or the provision should be declared unconstitutional.

The utility district is located in the heart of Canyon Creek, an affluent suburb of about 3,500 residents that didn’t exist until the 1980s. As recently as 2002, voters in Canyon Creek used a neighbor’s garage to cast their ballot in their utility board elections. The board wanted to change the polling location to a school, but first had to seek federal clearance.

The community won the approval, but Canyon Creek’s board argued that being forced to seek federal government approval was unnecessary for such a small neighborhood with no history of voter discrimination. 

This story was updated at 2:57 p.m.