Divided Supreme Court Strikes Down Key Voting Rights Provision

The Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that states can no longer be judged by voting discrimination that went on decades ago, in a decision that marks the end of a major civil-rights era reform.

The 5-4 ruling rewrites a key tool of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which for five decades has given the federal government unprecedented say in everything from how some states draw their congressional maps to where they place polling locations.

But the justices said after five decades, the law has had a dramatic effect in ending discrimination in voting, and said Congress must now come up with new ways of deciding who still needs federal oversight.

Beneath the legal ruling is a broader social statement, with the justices saying that a state cannot be perpetually held responsible for past discrimination if there’s no evidence that it still exists.

“Congress —if it is to divide the states — must identify those jurisdictions to be singled out on a basis that makes sense in light of current conditions. It cannot rely simply on the past,” Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. wrote for the majority.

The ruling leaves in place many of the protections of the 1965 law, such as banning literacy tests. But it said the federal government can no longer treat some jurisdictions differently because of discrimination that may have ended decades ago.

“If Congress had started from scratch in 2006, it plainly could not have enacted the present cover- age formula. It would have been irrational for Congress to distinguish between states in such a fundamental way based on 40-year-old data, when today’s statistics tell an entirely different story,” Chief Justice Roberts wrote.

At issue was Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act, which applies a decades-old formula to decide which states and counties had histories of discrimination.

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The formula hasn’t been updated, which the court ruled meant the nine states and counties in six other states that are still subject to the extra scrutiny are being judged for a history that may be long gone.

Those states that were covered by Section four had to subject to what is known as “preclearance,” which gives the federal government review over everything ranging from new congressional representation maps and voter-identification laws all the way down to moving a polling place across the road.

The preclearance provisions were deemed so drastic that when Congress enacted them in 1965, they were temporary. Lawmakers renewed in 1970, 1975, 1982 and, most recently, in 2006, when Congress extended them for 25 more years.

But the chief justice, in his opinion, said Congress didn’t go back and look at the formula it used to decide who was forced to submit to federal scrutiny and who was not.

The court’s four liberal-leaning justices dissented, with Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg writing that the court is essentially saying the Voting Rights Act has been so successful that it should be ended.

But Justice Ginsburg said discrimination still exists in voting laws ranging from racial gerrymandering to changing representation formulas — what she called “second-generation barriers.”

She said this was proved by the number of changes that the Justice Department rejected as discriminatory, acting under its Voting Rights Act powers.

“Given a record replete with examples of denial or abridgment of a paramount federal right, the court should have left the matter where it belongs: in Congress’ bailiwick,” Justice Ginsburg wrote.

The court ruling leaves the preclearance tools in place, but eliminates the formula Congress used to decide who had to go through the special scrutiny. Chief Justice Roberts invited Congress to try to rewrite the formula to be more fair.