Voting Rights Act Faces Supreme Court Scrutiny

Today the Supreme Court will begin to determine the future of the Voting Rights Act as it hears arguments for and against the landmark piece of legislation born out of the Civil Rights Movement.

The Voting Rights Act has been widely viewed as the most effective civil rights legislation in American history and has been upheld five times by the Supreme Court. The issue at hand today is whether a certain provision, section 5, discriminates against the nine predominantly southern states and parts of several other states to which it exclusively applies.

The law requires that states and districts with a history of racial prejudice get approval from federal officials before making changes to voting laws. The intention was to prevent discriminatory voting procedures before they happen, such as placing polling places in intentionally inconvenient locations and creating purposely restrictive voting requirements. Areas affected by the law must seek permission from the Justice Department or a federal court before they can make changes that would affect voting procedure or voter turnout.

The case today is Shelby County v. Holder. Justice Sonya Sotomayor questioned whether Shelby County was the best part of the country to bring forth the case.

“Some parts of the South have changed,” Justice Sotomayor said. “Your county pretty much hasn’t. You may be the wrong party bringing this.”

The formula Congress created to cover areas of the country with a history of discrimination has not been changed since 1975 and relies on data from 1972. Justice Elena Kagan asserted that the formula seemed to be working pretty well, despite its age.

The law’s challengers now want to know if Congress violated the law when it reauthorized the Voting Rights Act without updating the decades-old formula. Reauthorization of the law in 2006 was astoundingly bipartisan, with the Senate voting unanimously and the House voting 390 to 33.

Justice Antonin Scalia views the continuation of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act as a perpetuation of racial entitlement and asserted that it was not the kind of question that could be left to Congress.

“Whenever a society adopts racial entitlements, it is very difficult to get out of them through the normal political processes,” Justice Scalia said.

Justice Anthony Kennedy, often considered a swing vote between the Supreme Court’s liberal and conservative justices, also questioned whether the law was valid today.

“The Marshall Plan was very good, too — the Northwest Ordinance, the Morrill Act — but times change,” Justice Kennedy said.

Chief Justice John Roberts pointed out that Massachusetts currently has the worst black turnout in elections when compared with whites, in contrast with Mississippi, which currently has the best.

“Is it the government’s submission that the citizens in the South are more racist than the citizens in the North?” Chief Justice Roberts asked


Whichever way the justices lean on this matter, a decision is not expected until June. The Supreme Court may decide to strike Section 5 down as unconstitutional or send the law back to Congress.

The Voting Rights Act was first passed in 1965 and outlawed discriminatory voting practices that had led to widespread disenfranchisement of African Americans for nearly a century after the end of the Civil War. The act was passed after a hard-fought Civil Rights campaign and was signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson a year after the the Civil Rights Act. The Supreme Court hearing on the Voting Rights Act today came just over an hour after President Barack Obama and members of Congress unveiled a statue of Rosa Parks in the nearby US Capitol.