On Voting Rights, a Decision as Lamentable as Plessy or Dred Scott

Splitting 5-4 along ideological lines, today the Supreme Court ruled a key provision of the Voting Rights Act unconstitutional.


Representative John Lewis and the Reverend Al Sharpton at a rally for voting rights in front of the Supreme Court on February 27 (Gary Cameron/Reuters)

Let's be clear about what has just happened. Five unelected, life-tenured men this morning declared that overt racial discrimination in the nation's voting practices is over and no longer needs all of the special federal protections it once did. They did so, without a trace of irony, by striking down as unconstitutionally outdated a key provision of a federal law that this past election cycle alone protected the franchise for tens of millions of minority citizens. And they did so on behalf of an unrepentant county in the Deep South whose officials complained about the curse of federal oversight even as they continued to this very day to enact and implement racially discriminatory voting laws.

In deciding Shelby County v. Holder, in striking down Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act, the five conservative justices of the United States Supreme Court, led by Chief Justice John Roberts, didn't just rescue one recalcitrant Alabama jurisdiction from the clutches of racial justice and universal enfranchisement. By voiding the legislative formula that determines which jurisdictions must get federal "preclearance" for changes to voting laws, today's ruling enables officials in virtually every Southern county, and in many other jurisdictions as well, to more conveniently impose restrictive new voting rules on minority citizens. And they will. That was the whole point of the lawsuit. Here is the link to the ruling.

In a 5-4 ruling over liberal dissent, the Supreme Court today declared "accomplished" a "mission" that has become more, not less, dire in the four years since the justices last revisited the subject. They have done so by focusing on voter turnout, which surely has changed for the better in the past fifty years, and by ignoring the other ruses now widely employed to suppress minority votes. In so doing, the five federal judges responsible for this result, all appointed by Republican presidents, have made it materially easier for Republican lawmakers to hassle and harry and disenfranchise likely Democratic voters. And they have done so by claiming that the Congress didn't mean what it said when it renewed the act by landslide votes in 2006.

No statute is ever perfect. Perhaps Congress should indeed have updated the "coverage formula" of Section 4 when it last revisited the law. But there are plenty of imperfect laws kept afloat by courts, including this Court. What happened here is that the Court's conservatives were no longer willing to countenance the intrusion upon "state sovereignty" that Section 4 represented in the absence of what they considered to be "updated" justifications for federal oversight. To the majority, the fact that "minority candidates hold office at unprecedented levels," was more important than the fact that Section 4 was invoked more than 700 times between 1982 and 2006 to block racially discrimination voting measures.

The Decision

The opinion itself is as accessible as any you are likely to read. Writing for the Court, the Chief Justice declared that Congress simply failed to update the "coverage formula" of Section 4 to address the very successes that the Voting Rights Act has brought to minority voting rights over the past 50 years. If Congress is to divide the states between "covered" and uncovered jurisdictions, the Chief Justice wrote, it bears a heavy burden under the Tenth Amendment and "must identify those jurisdictions to be singled out on a basis that makes sense in light of current conditions. It simply cannot rely on the past."

The Fifteenth Amendment, which decrees "that the right to vote shall not be denied or abridged on account of race or color," the Chief Justice wrote in a remarkable passage, "is not designed to punish for the past; its purpose is to ensure a better future." Yet the Court's ruling today directly contradicts that lofty premise. A black voter in Shelby County today, as a result of this ruling, has a much grimmer "future" when it comes to voting rights than she did yesterday. Without Section 4's formula, Section 5 is neutered, and without Section 5 that black voter in Shelby County will have to litigate for her rights herself after the discriminatory law has come into effect.

In a passionate dissent, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg immediately homed in on the extraordinarily aggressive nature of what the Court has just done. "The question this case presents," she wrote, "is who decides whether, as currently operative, Section 5 remains justifiable, this Court, or a Congress charged with the obligation to enforce the post-Civil War amendments 'by appropriate legislation.'" Until today, Justice Ginsburg wrote, the Court "had accorded Congress the full measure of respect its judgments should garner" in implementing that anti-discriminatory intent of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments. Until today.

"The Court," Justice Ginsburg wrote, "makes no genuine attempt to engage with the massive legislative record that Congress assembled. Instead, it relies on increases in voter registration and turnout as if that were the whole story." And then she proceeded to outline the countless ways in which racial discrimination in voting practices is alive and well in Alabama and other jurisdictions covered by the law. "The sad irony of today's decision," she wrote, "lies in its utter failure to grasp why the VRA has proven effective." It has been effective, of course, because it has made it harder for vote suppressors to suppress the votes of minority citizens. No more and no less.

Presented by

Andrew Cohen is a contributing editor at The Atlantic. He is a legal analyst for 60 Minutes and CBS Radio News, a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice, and Commentary Editor at The Marshall Project

How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well. Bestselling author Mark Bittman teaches James Hamblin the recipe that everyone is Googling.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus


How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well.


Before Tinder, a Tree

Looking for your soulmate? Write a letter to the "Bridegroom's Oak" in Germany.


The Health Benefits of Going Outside

People spend too much time indoors. One solution: ecotherapy.


Where High Tech Meets the 1950s

Why did Green Bank, West Virginia, ban wireless signals? For science.


Yes, Quidditch Is Real

How J.K. Rowling's magical sport spread from Hogwarts to college campuses


Would You Live in a Treehouse?

A treehouse can be an ideal office space, vacation rental, and way of reconnecting with your youth.

More in National

Just In