Court Saves Voting Rights Act and Itself

By preserving a key component of civil rights law, justices avoid huge harm to the legitimacy of this Supreme Court.

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It would be difficult to overstate the significance and revelatory import of the Supreme Court’s long-awaited decision in Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District (NAMUD) v. Holder —the case that challenged the constitutionality of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. We learn that the conservative plurality on the court—minus Justice ClarenceThomas—has a pretty good sense of poker. That is to say, they know when to hold ‘em. And we learn that the political skills of Chief Justice John Roberts must be on the rise as well. He pulls Justices Antonin Scalia and Samuel Alito from the right and Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and David Souter from the center-left into a narrow decision in which the Supreme Court escapes ignominy by declining to strike down a key section of the act which Congress renewed just three years ago.

But the decision also sets back the cause of voting rights by establishing a path for many jurisdictions to escape compliance with the mandatory reporting provisions of Section 5. After the rough and tumble oral argument in April, civil rights tea-leaf readers were putting on a brave public face, but were privately lamenting what they thought was the certain end to a key piece of the legislation known as “the crown jewel” of the civil rights movement.

But it’s not just civil rights advocates who should be cheering. Had the Supreme Court narrowly decided, on a 5-4 vote, to supplant Congress’ view about the continuing need for the Voting Rights Act, its reputation would have suffered a severe blow. But the court stepped back from the abyss—with Chief Justice Roberts commandeering a unanimous agreement on a judgment allowing NAMUD to “bail out” of Section 5’s preclearance provisions. And in an 8-1 decision, all the justices—save Justice Thomas—declined to overturn the constitutionality of Section 5.

Section 5 is the provision of the Voting Rights Act that requires “covered” jurisdictions—mostly, but not exclusively in the South—to submit all voting changes to the Department of Justice for “preclearance” before such changes can be implemented. Changes—ranging from the location of polling places to the adoption of early voting to increasing the number of city council members—are routinely sent to the Justice Department for preclearance by jurisdictions such as New York City, several counties in Virginia, and the entire states of Texas, Mississippi and Georgia. Jurisdictions may also seek preclearance from a federal court in the District of Columbia. The preclearance requirement has meant that local minority communities have an opportunity to weigh in with the Justice Department about whether a proposed change is likely to undermine or negatively affect the ability of minority voters to participate in the political process. Most importantly, the existence of preclearance requirements has deterred many jurisdictions from even seeking to impose voting changes that would disenfranchise minority voters. Nevertheless, the Justice Department has objected over 600 times to proposed voting changes by covered jurisdictions since the Voting Rights Act was last reauthorized in 1982.

To strike down the act as unconstitutional would have required the Supreme Court to engage in the most activist kind of decision-making; imposing its own “instincts” about the need for voting protection over Congress’ judgment based on a voluminous and detailed record. Reading the decision, it’s clear that some members of the Supreme Court wanted to do just that. There is some waxing about how “[t]hings have changed in the South” and an insistence that “[t]he evil that Section 5 is meant to address may no longer be concentrated in the jurisdictions singled out for preclearance.” Ultimately, the Supreme Court, describing itself as “keenly mindful of [its] institutional role,” declines to supplant its own judgment for Congress’.

It’s not a pretty decision. One can almost see the jagged stitching of the needle and thread it took to stuff eight Supreme Court justices into this 16-page opinion. What emerges is a decision in which the court, with almost Solomonic precision, splits the difference. Section 5 survives, and the bailout provision is loosened. It's a loss for minority voters, despite protestations to the contrary. It will be interesting to see how many similar jurisdictions will now seek to get out from under the important oversight of the Department of Justice. Once jurisdictions are free from preclearance requirements, minority voters in a formerly covered jurisdiction who believe a voting change is discriminatory will have to amass the tens of thousands of dollars it costs to litigate a voting rights suit in federal court—a result directly contrary to Congress’ intent in enacting Section 5.

Although the part of the decision paving the way for NAMUD to bailout of the preclearence requirement was unanimous, there was, of course, the ubiquitous concurrence from Justice Clarence Thomas, who also dissents from the Supreme Court’s decision to leave Section 5 intact. Despite his feints against so-called “identity politics,” Justice Thomas almost always writes his own opinion—whether concurrent or dissenting—in race and civil rights cases. In fact, given the conservative majority on the Supreme Court, Justice Thomas may well come to be known as “the Great Concurrer.” It doesn’t have quite the ring of “the Great Dissenter,” but it’s perhaps a fitting moniker for a justice who has been nothing if not consistent in his determination to write concurring opinions in race cases that roughly translated seem to always amount to, “yeah, and as the black justice, I’d go even further than that.”

Justice Thomas’ decision in the NAMUD case is no different. Longer than the majority opinion by several pages, it contains, as always, a long historical race primer. Thomas knows that as the lone black justice his views about race will garner particular attention. He painstakingly sketches the history of racial discrimination in voting up through the civil rights movement. It’s always a compelling read. But it’s a setup for his dissent. The punch line is always “that was then, this is now.” Although the record amassed by Congress included evidence of discrimination against Native American voters in South Dakota, Latino voters in Arizona and Georgia, black poll workers in South Carolina, Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama, and which singled out Texas as having among the worst records of voting discrimination, in Thomas' view it amounts to “a record of scattered infringement of the right to vote.”

Thomas concludes that “[t]he extensive pattern of discrimination that led the Court to previously uphold section 5 as enforcing the Fifteenth Amendment no longer exists.” Congress has fully recognized that the patterns of contemporary voting discrimination differ from those in place in 1964. The Voting Rights Act was specifically designed to be supple enough to encompass methods which in the future might be used to disenfranchise minority voters, the Senate noted when it authorized the Voting Rights Act. Rather than enumerate and outlaw each individual discriminatory voting practice in use in 1965 or even in 1982, Congress chose to implement a scheme that puts the onus on covered jurisdictions to enact voting changes that pass scrutiny by a federal authority. The record amassed by Congress in 2006 did not demonstrate that the same barriers exist today as did in 1965. Instead Congress found that new (and some old) methods have produced a continuing need for special protection of minority voters in covered jurisdictions. Thomas’ proclamation about the absence of discrimination is just another way of saying that no matter what Congress found in 2006, he’s not buying it. This conclusion would be just fine if Thomas were a legislator (which may be his true calling).