Does ruling move us forward or backward?
A deeply divided Supreme Court on Tuesday halted enforcement of the federal government’s most potent tool to stop voting discrimination over the past half century, saying it does not reflect racial progress.
In a 5-4 ruling, the court declared unconstitutional a provision of the landmark Voting Rights Act that determines which states and localities must get Washington’s approval for proposed election changes.
President Barack Obama, the nation’s first black chief executive, issued a statement saying he was “deeply disappointed” with the ruling.
The decision effectively puts an end to the advance approval requirement that has been used, mainly in the South, to open up polling places to minority voters in the nearly half century since it was first enacted in 1965, unless Congress can come up with a new formula that Chief Justice John Roberts said meets “current conditions” in the United States.
Roberts, writing for a conservative majority, said the law Congress most recently renewed in 2006 relies on 40-year-old data that does not reflect racial progress and changes in U.S. society.
“The coverage formula that Congress reauthorized in 2006 ignores these developments, keeping the focus on decades-old data relevant to decades-old problems, rather than current data reflecting current needs,” Roberts said.
That task eluded Congress in 2006 when lawmakers overwhelmingly renewed the advance approval requirement with no changes in the system by which states and local jurisdictions were chosen for coverage. And Congress did nothing in response to a high court ruling in a similar challenge in 2009 in which the justices raised many of the same concerns.
Tuesday’s decision means that a host of state and local laws that have not received Justice Department approval or have not yet been submitted will be able to take effect. Prominent among those are voter identification laws in Alabama and Mississippi.
Going forward, the outcome alters the calculus of passing election-related legislation in the affected states and local jurisdictions. The threat of an objection from Washington has hung over election-related proposals for nearly a half century. At least until Congress acts, that deterrent now is gone.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, joined by her three liberal colleagues, dissented from Tuesday’s ruling.
“Hubris is a fit word for today’s demolition” of the law, Ginsburg said.
She said no one doubts that voting discrimination still exists. “But the court today terminates the remedy that proved to be best suited to block that discrimination,” she said in a dissent that she read aloud in the packed courtroom.
Ginsburg said the law continues to be necessary to protect against what she called subtler, “second-generation” barriers to voting. She identified one such effort as the switch to at-large voting from a district-by-district approach in a city with a sizable black minority. The at-large system allows the majority to “control the election of each city council member, effectively eliminating the potency of the minority’s votes,” she said.
The high court is in the midst of a broad re-examination of the ongoing necessity of laws and programs aimed at giving racial minorities access to major areas of American life from which they once were systematically excluded. The justices issued a modest ruling Monday that preserved affirmative action in higher education and will take on cases dealing with anti-discrimination sections of a federal housing law and another affirmative action case from Michigan next term.
The court warned of problems with the voting rights law in a similar case heard in 2009. The lawsuit acknowledged that the measure’s strong medicine was appropriate and necessary to counteract decades of state-sponsored discrimination in voting, despite the Fifteenth Amendment’s guarantee of the vote for black Americans.
But it asked whether there was any end in sight for a provision that intrudes on states’ rights to conduct elections, an issue the court’s conservative justices also explored at the argument in February. It was considered an emergency response when first enacted in 1965.
The Jennings Daily News would like to know what readers think of the Supreme Court’s decision. Is it time to move forward or will the decision keep many voters from moving forward?
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