SCOTUS Rules on Voting Rights Act

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By K. Levek

26scotus4_cnd-articleLargeOn Tuesday June 25, 2013 the Supreme Court of the United States made a monumental ruling on the 1964 Voting Rights Act.  The court struck down a part of the law that uses a formula to determine which states and counties must undergo federal oversight to prevent voter discrimination.

In a 5-4 ruling, authored by Chief Justice John Roberts and joined by Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy, Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito, the court ruled in Shelby County v. Holder that “things have changed dramatically” in the South in the nearly 50 years since the Voting Rights Act was signed in 1965.

The case from Alabama frees states and municipalities with a history of racial discrimination from having to clear changes in voting procedures with the federal government. That restriction has applied to nine states and parts of six others, mostly in the South.

The court struck down Section 4 of the law, the section that uses a federal formula to determine which states and counties must undergo U.S. federal oversight of their voting procedures to prevent voter discrimination.

Since it was first adopted in 1965, Congress has repeatedly extended the law, most recently by a nearly unanimous vote in a Republican-controlled House and Senate in 2006.  In the vote, the justices said the key component; Section 4, of the act is now unconstitutional.

The ruling will make it tougher for the Obama administration to enforce the law, at least until Congress changes it.  President Obama called the ruling a “setback” and vowed that his “administration will continue to do everything in its power to ensure a fair and equal voting process.”

At the core of the disagreement was whether racial minorities continued to face barriers to voting in states with a history of discrimination.  “Our country has changed,” said Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. who wrote for the majority. “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.”

The states covered under the Voting Rights Act were Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, Louisiana, South Carolina, Texas, Virginia, Arizona and Alaska. Also included were five counties in Florida, three boroughs in New York City and three counties in Central and Northern California — Monterey, Kings and Yuba.

Dissenting justices included Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Justices Stephen G. Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan.  However, the majority held that the coverage formula in Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act, originally passed in 1965 and most recently updated by Congress in 1975, was unconstitutional. The section determined which states must receive clearance from the Justice Department or a federal court in Washington before they made minor changes to voting procedures, like moving a polling place, or major ones, like redrawing electoral districts.

Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), a hero of the civil rights movement, said the Supreme Court “had stuck a dagger in the heart of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. They’re saying, in effect, that history cannot repeat itself. But I say, come and walk in my shoes.”

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