Marshall never truly got the Court he wanted. But his vision did help pull the body into its modern role as an institutional check on white power. Last month, however, the Supreme Court finally closed the book on that vision. Just five years after the landmark Shelby County v. Holder decision, it’s become clear that the decision has handed the country an era of renewed white racial hegemony. And we’ve only just begun.
Shelby County has been discussed constantly in The Atlantic, and in my work especially. That’s for good reason. In that 2013 decision, the Supreme Court invalidated a decades-old “coverage formula” naming jurisdictions that had to pass federal scrutiny under the Voting Rights Act, referred to as “preclearance,” in order to pass any new elections or voting laws. Those jurisdictions were selected based on their having a history of discrimination in voting. The decision also left it to Congress to come up with new criteria for coverage, which hasn’t happened and probably won’t happen soon. In practice, the decision means that communities facing new discriminatory voting laws have had to file suits themselves or rely on Justice Department suits or challenges from outside advocates—sometimes after the discriminatory laws have already taken effect. Under Attorney General Jeff Sessions, the department hasn’t been interested in filing such suits, meaning that citizens have been on their own.
The results have been predictable. Voter-identification laws, which experts suggest will make voting harder especially for poor people, people of color, and elderly people, have advanced in several states, and some voting laws that make it easier to register and cast ballots have been destroyed. For many of the jurisdictions formerly under preclearance, voting became rapidly more difficult after the Shelby County decision, particularly for poor and elderly black people and Latinos.
Elections have been influenced, and voters have been disenfranchised, since 2013, but that’s all just the preliminary fallout from Shelby County. The real damage can be found in Chief Justice John Roberts’s reasoning in the Court’s decision:
A statute’s “current burdens” must be justified by “current needs,” and any “disparate geographic coverage” must be “sufficiently related to the problem that it targets.” The coverage formula met that test in 1965, but no longer does so.
Coverage today is based on decades-old data and eradicated practices. The formula captures States by reference to literacy tests and low voter registration and turnout in the 1960s and early 1970s. But such tests have been banned nationwide for over 40 years. And voter registration and turnout numbers in the covered States have risen dramatically in the years since. Racial disparity in those numbers was compelling evidence justifying the preclearance remedy and the coverage formula. There is no longer such a disparity.
Ignoring that deep racial disparities do still exist in every phase of voting, especially in the precincts formerly covered by the Voting Rights Act, Roberts’s legal analysis boils down to the fact that preclearance was very effective in reversing disenfranchisement, so the country no longer needs it. In her dissent, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg pointed out the apparent paradox of that reasoning, writing that “throwing out preclearance when it has worked and is continuing to work to stop discriminatory changes is like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet.”