In a decision that reverses five decades of progress in expanding access to the ballot for African-Americans and language minorities, the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated a key provision of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and by doing so rendered useless the major enforcement provision of the law. In a 5-4 decision in Shelby v. Holder, split along ideological lines, with the Court’s conservatives in the majority, Section 4 of the Act was struck down. That provision authorized the identification of jurisdictions subject to pre-clearance of any changes to their election statutes. By gutting Section 4, the Court rendered Section 5 useless. Section 5 mandated that the jurisdictions identified by Section 4 seek pre-clearance from the U.S. Department of Justice before making any changes in their election statutes.
Section 4 and Section 5 were important measures by which southern states with a history of Jim Crow segregation were closely monitored. These states are the heirs to slavery and were the practitioners of racial discrimination, and continue to attempt to block access to the ballot. The Act did not limit its protection to Black southerners. Section 5 also applied to certain boroughs of New York City with large populations of language minorities, and in the 1960s that essentially meant Puerto Ricans in the nation’s largest city. Without these two provisions a large number of Black and Latino elected officials would never have been elected.
That this opinion was handed down just months before the 50th anniversary of the great March on Washington where the nation’s civil rights leadership and labor leaders gathered to call on the Kennedy administration to advance a civil rights bill and extend voting rights protection, is not lost. The Court’s conservative faction had been itching for some time to dismantle the Act. Yesterday’s opinion was the culmination of decades of near collisions that resulted in a decision that firmly re-established the principle of states’ rights and left the door open in states to employ a number of devices and techniques to deny African-Americans and others the right to vote.
In a statement following the release of the Court’s opinion, President Obama stated, “Today’s decision invalidating one of its core provisions upsets decades of well-established practices that help make sure voting is fair, especially in places where voting discrimination has been historically prevalent.” The President went on to call on Congress to pass legislation “to ensure every American has equal access to the polls.”
Chief Justice Roberts justified the ruling by suggesting new criteria needed to be established to determine which jurisdictions should be covered since, according to Roberts, the discriminatory conditions no longer existed as they did in 1965. He indicated Congress needed to review the present circumstances and come up with new criteria. Supporters of voting rights and Democrats on the Hill can attest to the toxic environment in Congress and the long odds of securing a bill through the Republican majority in the House. It is perhaps the great irony in yesterday’s ruling. A body now with representation including dozens of Black and Latino lawmakers, all beneficiaries of the Voting Rights Act, is so extreme that a bill enabling the very law responsible for that diversity cannot make it through the GOP juggernaut in the lower house. With surgeon like precision the Roberts Court conservative wing pushed the clock back to the day when the most extreme and racist measures were employed to harass, intimidate and use outright violence to deny Blacks the right to vote.
The Court’s opinion was highly anticipated and followed two rulings on Monday that also have the potential to fundamentally alter the justice landscape. In one ruling the Court, in Fisher v. University of Texas, returned to the lower court a case challenging affirmative action at the university. What was striking was the Court suggesting the lower court use the highest standard of judicial review to determine if the university’s use of race in its affirmative action policy was permissible and that such use of race should only occur if a race-neutral policy that achieves the same goal of diversity is not available. Again, the Court peeled back another policy that ultimately expanded Blacks’ rights. In the other opinion issued Monday the Court narrowed the ability of individuals to file workplace discrimination lawsuits alleging retaliation. In that opinion the Court ruled that such claims were only valid if plaintiffs could prove their termination was related only to their claiming discriminatory treatment and nothing else. Combined with the ruling on the Voting Rights Act, the three opinions collectively represent one of the worst weeks for equal opportunity since the height of the civil rights movement.
The real question for the civil rights community and African-Americans is: What’s next? With the House as presently comprised unlikely to craft and pass an equitable replacement for Section 4, the battle for voting rights will be fought in state legislatures. This is particularly the case in those southern states “freed” from pre-clearance. It will be difficult for voting rights advocates and supporters to monitor the intricacies of state-level legislative policy making, and even more of a challenge absent the “stick” of enforcement by the federal government. Many of the same conditions that contributed to the abuse of power in the 1950s and 1960s still exist in many of these jurisdictions, and unlike that era, the ability to suppress Black voter suppression is aided by new technologies. The horror of the 2000 presidential election could be replicated in hundreds of elections, at all levels of government with no recourse save civil disobedience.
With the Supreme Court churning inward toward a period of retrenchment on civil rights those groups that carry the mantle of seekers of justice must now re-evaluate how they achieve their goal of full voter participation.