Supreme Court Voting Rights Undoing Civil Rights

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Reuters reports that today a decision of the U.S. Supreme Court was published, which struck down a significant section of the Voting Rights Act (VRA), which was passed in 1965 to end attempts by states to block African-Americans from voting. Some decry the decision as undoing gains in civil rights that have been ached in the forty years since its passage.

The 5-4 ruling, authored by Chief Justice John Roberts and joined by Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy, Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito, the conservative majority, noted the dramatic changes in the South since the Voting Rights Act was signed into law in 1965. He wrote that the coverage formula of the Act violates the sovereignty granted to all states under the U.S. Constitution.  In a concurring opinion, Justice Clarence Thomas expressed his frequently reiterated belief that Section 5 is also unconstitutional, and that he would have abrogated the advance approval requirement itself.

The Christian Science Monitor reported the Court’s majority decision found that Congress needed to demonstrate that the law’s requirements address problems that exist today, not those that were prevalent forty years ago, when the Voting Rights Act was enacted.

The purpose of the Act was to fight against the denial of essential legal protections for minority voters.  It was a major achievement of the civil rights movement of the 1960s, led in substantial part by Dr. Martin Luther King.

The decision now places the burden on Congress to pass any new voting rights law.  The Court’s decision demonstrates its impatience with Congress to update the Act by developing a formula of coverage based on current conditions. The preclearance procedure has continually utilized the same criteria for determining e which jurisdictions would be covered by the Act. The law has been reauthorized four times since 1965 – in 1970, 1975, 1982, and 2006.

NBC News noted that Congressional action is to reform the VRA is difficult to imagine at a time when it is gridlocked by division along party lines.

There must be demonstration that exceptional conditions still exist to justify what is an extraordinary departure from the traditional relations between the States and the Federal Government, Justice Roberts wrote.

The question is whether the Court’s decision acts to undo civil rights laws in the United States.

Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan vigorously dissented to the majority’s decision.  They are regarded as the liberal wing of the Court.

 In her dissenting opinion, Justice Ginsburg said that the “demolition” of the VRA was best described as “hubris,” and that the decision was hardly an example of restrained and moderate decision-making.

The states covered by the Voting Act were Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas, and Virginia. The provision also focused on counties and other municipal jurisdictions in California, Florida, Michigan, New York, North Carolina, and South Dakota.

Section 2 of the Act authorized its enforcement only after an alleged violation has taken place. In contrast, Section 5 required covered jurisdictions to prove they were not discriminating before being allowed to make any changes to the election process. Under Section 5, as it existed before the Court’s decision today, states and municipalities had to demonstrate that a proposed voting change did not have the purpose and would not have the effect of discriminating based on race or color. In some cases, they must also had to show that the proposed change did not have the purpose or effect of discriminating against a “language minority group, which would include “persons who are American Indian, Asian American, Alaskan Natives or of Spanish heritage.” The burden of proof was on the covered jurisdiction to establish that the proposed changes did not have “retrogressive purpose.”(Wikipedia.)

The dissenting Justices objected that discriminatory practices continue in these jurisdictions.  New generations, they maintain, have evolved subtler barriers to the rights of minorities to exercise their constitutional right to vote.  The elimination of the preclearance would risk undoing the gains that have been made.

So the decision may be a temporary blunting of an Act that may be rectified by Congress or it may be a landmark in the undoing of civil rights.

By:  Tom Ukinski

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