WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court’s conservative majority strongly suggested Wednesday that a key portion of the landmark legislation protecting minority voting rights is no longer justified and the Southern states should be freed from special federal oversight.
At stake was Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which even challengers credit with delivering the promise of political inclusion to minority voters and eventually leading to the election of the nation’s first African-American president.
The justices’ questioning of the lawyers was so intense that Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. allowed the session to run in to overtime.
At issue was Section 5, a central provision of the law, that requires nine states, mostly in the South, and jurisdictions in other states to “pre-clear” any changes in voting laws with federal authorities. If the court overturns the provision, the states and jurisdictions could change voting procedures without first getting permission from federal officials.
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Justice Antonin Scalia said Congress’s decision in 2006 to reauthorize the law was the result of a “phenomenon that is called perpetuation of racial entitlement.” Politicians, he said, are afraid to vote against something with the “wonderful” name of the Voting Rights Act.
Court liberals aggressively defended the reauthorization, saying Congress amassed overwhelming evidence of a continued need for Section 5, which covers Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas, Virginia, Alaska and Arizona, plus parts of seven other states.
“I don’t know what they’re thinking exactly,” Justice Stephen Breyer said of the nearly unanimous majorities in Congress that reauthorized Section 5. He added, referring to efforts to thwart minority voting, “it seems to me one might reasonably think this: It’s an old disease, it’s gotten a lot better, a lot better, but it’s still there.”
The court in 2009 previously considered whether the extension of Section 5 was constitutional. The justices decided that case without a definitive answer but sent a message to Congress that the court was dissatisfied with the formula used to determine which states were covered by Section 5.
In the 2009 case, Roberts wrote that such an imposition on state sovereignty must be justified by current needs. “The statute’s coverage formula is based on data that is now more than 35 years old and there is considerable evidence that it fails to account for current political conditions,” he wrote for seven other justices.
Congress took no action after that decision, and there were signs Wednesday that conservatives on the court had lost patience. Justice Anthony Kennedy, who often casts the deciding vote when the court is ideologically split and is a strong supporter of federalism, said the current challenge by Shelby County, Ala., leaves the state under “the trusteeship of the United States government.”
He also strongly criticized use of the formula, which originally was based upon measures such as literacy tests and voter-registration percentages. “If Congress is going to single out separate states by name, it should do it by name,” Kennedy said. “Congress just didn’t have the time or the energy to do this; it just re-enacted” the existing formula.
Justice Samuel Alito Jr. called the Voting Rights Act “one of the most successful statutes that Congress passed in the 20th century” but nevertheless said the selection of jurisdictions covered by Section 5 made no sense today.
Comparing jurisdictions that are covered with those that are not, he questioned whether discrimination was “a bigger problem in Virginia than in Tennessee, or it’s a bigger problem in Arizona than Nevada, or in the Bronx as opposed to Brooklyn.”
Solicitor General Donald Verrilli Jr., who, along with Debo Adegbile of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, was defending the law’s reauthorization, was asked by Roberts: “Is it the government’s submission that the citizens in the South are more racist than citizens in the North?”
Verrilli said the government was not making that claim but was arguing that Congress had found Section 5 was still needed in those jurisdictions and, in doing so, was relying on a formula the court had found constitutional in four previous examinations.
The law was challenged by Shelby County, which argued it is outdated and unfairly singles out Southern states based on their history of bias. The county was represented by Bert Rein, a Washington lawyer who said today’s Alabama bore “no resemblance” to the state that earned its spot on the 1965 list.
The liberal justices were armed with statistics. “You’re objecting to a formula, but under any formula that Congress could devise, it would capture Alabama,” said Justice Elena Kagan, citing findings that a greater proportional number of violations of the act occur in the South.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor said it was a recent violation by a town in Shelby County that led to the current case. “Why would we vote in favor of a county whose record is the epitome of what caused the passage of this law to start with?” she asked.
While the discrimination of 1965 may no longer be present, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said, “the discrimination continues in other forms.”
The question of deference to Congress provoked the most dramatic moments. When Scalia said that the 98-to-0 Senate vote for reauthorization was evidence that lawmakers had not seriously considered the issue, Kagan addressed him directly.
“Well, that sounds like a good argument to me, Justice Scalia,” Kagan said. “It was clear to 98 senators, including every senator from a covered state, who decided that there was a continuing need for this piece of legislation.”
Addressing Verrilli, Scalia repeated his concern that extending the voting-rights law is “not the kind of a question you can leave to Congress.”
Verrilli disagreed, saying, “We are talking about the enforcement power that the Constitution gives to the Congress to make these judgments to ensure protection of fundamental rights.”
The case is Shelby County v. Holder.