A key provision of the Voting Rights Act – one of the most fundamental civil rights laws on the books – was ruled invalid by the Court.
Based on the historic, pervasive and crippling restrictions on voting rights of minorities in some areas of the country for nearly a century following the Civil War, Congress in 1965 enacted Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. Section 5 requires specific jurisdictions – including all jurisdictions in six states of the former Confederacy -- to obtain approval from the federal government for any change in voting districts or procedures. In 2006, by an overwhelming margin (98-0 in the Senate, and 390-33 in the House of Representatives) Congress reauthorized Section 5 for another 25 years.
Shelby County, Alabama, a jurisdiction under Section 5 oversight, argued that the widespread voting discrimination that once made Section 5 an appropriate remedy had ended for good.
A civil rights organization, The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights (LCCHR), of which AARP is a member, filed a friend-of-the-court brief arguing that there is a real and substantial risk that progress made in covered jurisdictions since 1965 would be rolled back with the elimination of Section 5. The brief also challenged the evidence presented by Shelby County that purports to show that oversight no longer is needed.
The LCCHR brief detailed the history of voting rights up to enactment of Section 5, reviewing the deliberate and effective disenfranchisement of African-Americans. Citing historical studies, Supreme Court precedent, and other authorities noting that widespread disenfranchisement of minorities would have continued without Section 5, the brief then parsed the evidence considered by Congress and the findings made by Congress in 2006 in deciding to extend the lifespan of Section 5. Finally, the brief pointed out that Section 5 has a mechanism for removing a covered jurisdiction from oversight (“bailout”) that Shelby County could have taken, but elected not to. Since 1982, no bailout application has ever been denied. In the words of the brief, “there is every reason to expect that the number of successful bailout applications will continue to climb as the covered jurisdictions continue to make progress toward eliminating voting discrimination.”
By a one vote margin, the Supreme Court ruled that Section 5 as formulated in the law is now invalid. While not striking down Section 5 in its entirety, nor striking down the need for preclearance review, the Court ruled that the formula for identifying jurisdictions subject to special scrutiny is no longer applicable and Congress must enact a new standard. This leaves to Congress to come up with a new formula.
What’s at Stake
The history of systematic, widespread, and entrenched disenfranchisement of minorities in certain areas of the U.S. is a shameful, unresolved legacy in a country that prides itself on upholding democratic principles. The Voting Rights Act – and Section 5 specifically – was enacted to right wrongs that spanned generations. Section 5 provides a vehicle for jurisdictions to remove themselves from oversight. The Court’s ruling recognizes Section 5 as a valid, still-necessary means to regulate state and local governments unable to show they have made a clean break with a long history of discrimination, but requires its formula be changed by Congress.
Shelby County v. Holder was decided by the U.S. Supreme Court.