Outrage over Supreme Court VRA decision

6/25/2013, 3:09 p.m.
In a 5-4 ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court has struck down the coverage formula used to determine which states and ...
Members of the NAACP hold signs in front of the US Supreme Court in Washington on June 25. (AFP, Nicholas Kamm)

In a 5-4 ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court has struck down the coverage formula used to determine which states and political subdivisions are subject to the preclearance requirement of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, a civil rights law that has protected the right to vote for people of color since 1965. The decision in Shelby County v. Holder did not strike down Section 5 itself, leaving it to Congress to devise a new coverage formula.

Many, including President Barack Obama and representatives of several groups that defended the case before the court said the June 25 decision was a disappointment.

Sherrilyn Ifill, president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, which defended the case before the U.S. Supreme Court said the decision is "act of extraordinary judicial overreach."

"The Supreme Court ruling takes the most powerful tool our nation has to defend minority voting rights out of commission," said Ifill. "By second-guessing Congress’ judgment about which places should be covered by Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, the court has left millions of minority voters without the mechanism that has allowed them to stop voting discrimination before it occurs.

"This is like letting you keep your car, but taking away the keys. To say that I am disappointed is an understatement. Congress must step in."

Laughlin McDonald, special counsel and director emeritus of the ACLU's Voting Rights Project, which also defended the case, also commented on the decision.

"The court's decision presents a real challenge to Americans' fundamental right to vote. It is also a significant departure from the Supreme Court's previous four decisions over four decades recognizing that Congress is in the best position to judge the value of the preclearance requirement and where it is most needed," said McDonald.

"As Congress recognized when it reenacted the preclearance requirement with overwhelming bipartisan majorities in 2006, strong federal legislation remains necessary to ensure that all Americans can exercise the right to vote free from racial discrimination," said Laura W. Murphy, director of the ACLU's Washington Legislative Office. "That fact is as true in today as it was seven years ago."

Because the court's decision strikes down only the coverage formula, but not the preclearance requirement itself, it is now up to Congress to draw a new formula that continues to protect the rights of minority voters.

"I am very upset by this ruling. Preclearance is the single greatest tool that has helped make sure people have the right to vote. It's important for people to be able to continue voting without distractions and barriers. Unfortunately voter disfranchisement still exists. We even saw it in the last election," said Pastor Kenneth Dukes, a Shelby County resident. "While I disagree with the Supreme Court's decision, I know that Democrats and Republicans have supported preclearance over and over again and know that they will again," Dukes said. "In 2006, you had Republicans and Democrats – who never agree on anything – agree on that."

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 is one of the nation's most critical federal civil rights statutes. It ensures state and local governments don't pass laws or policies that deny American citizens the equal right to vote based on race. Section 5, a key provision of the Voting Rights Act, requires certain jurisdictions that have a history of discriminatory voting practices to secure advance approval from the federal government before changing their election laws. These jurisdictions may "bail out" of Section 5 by maintaining a "clean record" – no evidence of discrimination in voting rights – for 10 years. More than 100 jurisdictions have done so in recent years."