Civil and Human Rights

In need of a constitutional rationale

By Steve Benen  

 

There’s something about the Supreme Court’s ruling in Shelby that’s bothered me all day. It’s probably unimportant — Jonathan Adler, feel free to jump in and set me straight — but as I read the ruling (pdf) this morning, I was looking for something specific: why the court majority considers Sec. 4 of the Voting Rights Act unconstitutional.

 

I’m not an attorney, so I’ll concede my background is limited, but in the rulings I’ve read striking down federal laws, there’s some kind of explanation as to the part of the Constitution the law ostensibly contradicts. A statute violates the First Amendment, or the Commerce Clause, or the Due Process clause, etc., and is therefore unlawful.

 

So on what grounds, exactly, did the court find Sec. 4 of the VRA unconstitutional? I have no idea.

 

Assuming I’d missed something important, I asked the Constitutional Accountability Center’s David Gans to help me out. He told me:

 

“Your question highlights a fundamental flaw in Chief Justice Roberts’ majority opinion in Shelby County v. Holder. The Court strikes down a core provision of the Voting Rights Act as unconstitutional without ever explaining what provision of the Constitution commands this result. Chief Justice Roberts’ opinion for the conservative majority argued that the Voting Rights Act provision was inconsistent with the ‘letter and spirit of the Constitution,’ but he never really explained why.

 

“His majority opinion emphasized that the Voting Rights Act diminished the sovereignty of states, ignoring that Fifteenth Amendment expressly gives to Congress broad power to prevent all forms of racial discrimination in voting by the states. As Justice Ginsburg’s powerful dissent demonstrates, the Court’s opinion cannot be squared with the text, history, and meaning of the Fifteenth Amendment.”

 

Judicial restraint is often a rather amorphous concept, which sometimes means different things to different people. But in this case we have a piece of civil-rights legislation that was approved by the people’s representatives, and then re-approved with large majorities several times. It was signed into law by an elected president, and then reauthorized to great fanfare by subsequent presidents of both parties. It’s been subjected to judicial scrutiny over the course of several decades, and a judicial precedent has been set: the Voting Rights Act is legal.

 

Or put another way, when federal law is endorsed by the House, the Senate, the president, and the public, and it’s consistent with decades of Supreme Court precedent, a court majority probably ought to have a very good reason for tossing all of that aside.

 

But in Shelby, five conservative justices gutted the Voting Rights Act anyway, deeming it inconsistent with Constitution because, well, they said so. These jurists said the same law used to be perfectly constitutional, but somehow morphed into being unconstitutional without anyone noticing, and without violating anything specific in the Constitution itself.

 

I’d argue this is the opposite of restraint; it’s activism. The justices decided to substitute their judgment for the people’s and their elected lawmakers, because they felt like it.

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