Front & Center: Court’s supremely wrong ruling

The U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling this week in Shelby v. Holder, which invalidated the federal preclearance requirement of the Voter Rights Act of 1965, drew mixed reviews. Some call it a victory for federalism and state sovereignty; critics say it rolls out the red carpet for minority voter suppression. David Gans, director of the human rights, civil rights, and citizenship program at the Constitutional Accountability Center also considers the ruling a step backward. He reviews the decision in an email interview with Sentinel editorial writer Darryl E. Owens. An edited transcript follows. 


Q: Were you surprised at the Supremes’ ruling?


A: The ruling was expected, but deeply wrong. In striking down a core provision of the Voting Rights Act, the justices flouted the text and history of the 15th Amendment, which expressly gives to Congress the power to prevent all forms of voting discrimination. The majority justified its ruling by invoking state sovereignty, forgetting that the 15th Amendment was designed to limit the acts of states. 


Q: So you disagree, then, with Chief Justice Roberts, who wrote that additional voter protections are no longer “justified by current needs” …


A: Chief Justice Roberts reached this conclusion by disregarding Congress’ findings. In renewing the preclearance requirement, Congress concluded that the Voting Rights Act was still necessary to prevent current and ongoing racial discrimination in voting concentrated in the covered jurisdictions, including race-based redistricting, closing or relocating polling places, and even canceling elections to deprive African-Americans of the right to vote. As the 15,000-page record Congress assembled shows, the act was needed to protect the right to vote in jurisdictions with the worst record of voting discrimination, in places such as Shelby County, Alabama. 


Q: Some have suggested the ruling means a return to open season on minority voting for Republicans. Hyperbole? 


A: The court’s ruling strikes down a critical part of the nation’s most effective votingrights law. While other remedies remain available, we are likely to see new efforts to dilute minority voting strength or limit access to the ballot in the wake of the Shelby County ruling. 


Q: In defending the ruling, some insist parts of the Voting Rights Act have hurt minority candidates by limiting their sway to “majority-minority” districts. And they insist Democratic minority candidates have been harmed more than Republicans. What impact, if any, does the ruling have in this regard?


A: The act protects voters, not parties. We sawthat during the 2012 elections when the act prevented discriminatory laws in anumber of states, including cutbacks on early voting in Florida designed to make it more difficult for President Obama’s supporters to cast a ballot.


Q: After the ruling, Florida Secretary of State Ken Detzner observed: “It will be better without the Department of Justice looking over our shoulder all the time.” What can Florida voters expect going forward? 


A: The voting rights of Americans, both in Florida and elsewhere, will be less secure now that the court has effectively eliminated this critical protection of the right to vote.


Q: What immediate consequences will the ruling have?


A: The Supreme Court’s job is to follow the Constitution, but in striking down a core part of the Voting Rights Act, the court’s conservative majority disregarded the Constitution’s text that expressly gives to Congress the power to enact laws, like the Voting Rights Act, to curb racial discrimination in voting. The consequences have already been felt in Texas, where the state announced that its voter-identification law would take effect immediately. The law—the nation’s most stringent—was blocked by a federal court under the Voting Rights Act because it would have disenfranchised thousands of minority voters.

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