What part of the Constitution did the Voting Righs Act violate?

While reading today’s Supreme Court opinion striking down section four of the Voting Rights Act, I kept asking myself what part of the constitution were the justices basing their decision off of?

Chief Justice John Roberts wrote the opinion of the court that they viewed section four of the Voting Rights Act as unconstitutional, and requiring congress to go back and re-formulate which jurisdictions would be required to get their election law changes precleared by the Department of Justice, but he never actually specified which part of the Constitution the law violated.

Throughout his 24 page opinion, he states repeatedly that when the Voting Rights Act was first passed and challenged that the Court upheld the constitutionality of the law. But apparently since minority voting participation in the jurisdictions the law applies to is higher than the national average, the law is all of a sudden unconstitutional.

What? That doesn’t make sense.

I’ll fully admit that I am not a lawyer, nor have I attended law school, but I have read my fair share of Supreme Court opinions and would like to think I have a bit of knowledge about the concepts and terms that are used to understand what is going on.

Beyond the vague references to overall state sovereignty, to my knowledge, Chief Justice Roberts doesn’t once point to a specific provision of the Constitution that section four of the Voting Rights Act supposedly violates. Suffice to say, his entire argument can be summed up by this paragraph from page 20 of the opinion:

During that time, largely because of the Voting Rights Act, voting tests were abolished, disparities in voter registration and turnout due to race were erased, and African-Americans attained political office in record numbers. And yet 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

In layman’s terms: At one point the Voting Rights Act was completely constitutional, but because the law worked and minorities are participating in elections at the same rate as Caucasian voters, it suddenly became unconstitutional NOT because the law itself is unconstitutional, but because Congress didn’t change the formula it used to choose which jurisdictions it applied to.

This afternoon I came by a blog post by Steve Benen who was wondering the same thing I was. He reached out to a David Gan’s at the Constitutional Law Center to see if he was missing something in the Roberts’ opinion:

“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.”

Essentially what happened today was five justices on the Supreme Court decided a law that had previously been ruled constitutional all of a sudden violated that same document, without anything changing, because, why not?

I count a total of four states that previously had to comply with section four of the Voting Rights Act that can’t wait to implement voter ID now that they don’t have to get their laws precleared by the Department of Justice: Alabama, Mississippi, North Carolina, and Texas.


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