Civil and Human Rights

Supreme Court strikes a compromise to save landmark voting law

The US Supreme Court’s 8-to-1 decision on the Voting Rights Act Monday represented an apparent compromise – resolving a broad legal challenge to the landmark law without undercutting the main force of it.

The high court ruled that a small utility district in Texas was eligible for an exemption from mandated federal oversight of its local elections.

That new, more expansive, interpretation of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act allowed the high court to sidestep a much larger constitutional challenge that loomed over the case – and over the high court itself.

Analysts had suggested the Supreme Court was poised to use the case to strike down a key portion of the voting-rights law. Civil rights leaders warned of dire consequences for the nation.

On Monday, those same leaders expressed praise for the high court’s ruling.

“The Supreme Court backed away from a very steep cliff today,” said Doug Kendall of the Constitutional Accountability Center in Washington.

“The narrow ruling … preserves the most effective piece of civil rights legislation in American history,” said Nan Aron, of Alliance for Justice in Washington.

Writing for the majority, Chief Justice John Roberts acknowledged the historic importance of the Voting Rights Act in guaranteeing minority voting rights. At the same time he noted that the law’s provisions “raise serious constitutional questions.”

Analysts say the notation will be read as an invitation for future lawsuits challenging the constitutionality of the Voting Rights Act. “The historic accomplishments of the Voting Rights Act are undeniable,” the chief justice wrote. “When it was first passed, unconstitutional discrimination was rampant and the ‘registration of voting age whites ran roughly 50 percentage points or more ahead’ of black registration in many covered states.”

But Roberts added: “Things have changed in the South. Voter turnout and registration rates now approach parity. Blatantly discriminatory evasions of federal decrees are rare. And minority candidates hold office at unprecedented levels.”

“It may be that these improvements are insufficient and that conditions continue to warrant preclearance under the act,” he said. “But the Act imposes current burdens and must be justified by current needs.”

At issue in the broad constitutional challenge was whether Congress exceeded its legislative authority when it reauthorized the Voting Rights Act in 2006 for 25 years.

The high court avoided that issue by deciding the case on narrower grounds. The justices ruled that political subdivisions like cities, towns, and even small municipal utility districts must be afforded an opportunity to prove they have not discriminated in elections for at least a decade. If they can prove that, they can win exemption from federal oversight.

Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act has been a symbol of the march toward greater equality, said John Payton of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.

“Without its protections, our nation would unnecessarily face the grave risk of significant backsliding and retrenchment in the fragile gains that have been made,” he said.

While blatant Jim Crow laws are gone, other forms of discrimination still exist, says Benjamin Todd Jealous, president of the NAACP. “It is no longer about fire hoses and polls taxes,” Mr. Jealous said. “But it is very much about voter purging, the intentional moving of polling locations, and the massive disinformation campaigns that are targeted at black communities.”

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