CRF Blog

Supreme Court Decides Shelby County v. Holder

by Damon Huss

The U.S. Supreme Court issued its decision in the case of Shelby County v. Holder today. Writing for a 5-4 majority, Chief Justice John Roberts asserted that a certain provision mandating preclearance in the Voting Rights Act (VRA) is unconstitutional (see my previous post on this case here). Specifically, the Court held that the formula in Section 4 of the VRA  is no longer valid to determine which areas of the country have a history of racial discrimination to trigger preclearance before any changes in voting laws in those areas. The full text of the decision is available here.

Chief Justice Roberts writes:

The Fifteenth Amendment commands that the right to vote shall not be denied or abridged on account of race or color, and it gives Congress the power to enforce that command. The Amendment is not designed to punish for the past; its purpose is to ensure a better future. See Rice v. Cayetano, 528 U. S. 495, 512 (2000) (“Consistent with the design of the Constitution, the [Fifteenth] Amendment is cast in fundamental terms, terms transcending the particular controversy which was the immediate impetus for its enactment.”). To serve that purpose, 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. We made that clear in Northwest Austin [in 2009], and we make it clear again today.

Roberts was joined by Justices Samuel Alito, Anthony Kennedy, Antonin Scalia, and Clarence Thomas  (Justice Thomas also wrote a concurring opinion). The majority argues that Congress needs to come up with a new formula for determining which states or localities need to apply for preclearance in light of evidence for declining racial discrimination in the affected areas under Section 4 and Section 5 of the VRA.

In a dissent joined by Justices Stephen Breyer, Elena Kagan, and Sonia Sotomayor, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg criticizes the majority’s decision, arguing that the Court ought to show deference to Congress:

It cannot tenably be maintained that the VRA, an Act of Congress adopted to shield the right to vote from racial discrimination, is inconsistent with the letter or spirit of the Fifteenth Amendment, or any provision of the Consti­tution read in light of the Civil War Amendments. No­where in today’s opinion, or in Northwest Austin, is there clear recognition of the transformative effect the Fifteenth Amendment aimed to achieve….

Until today, in considering the constitutionality of the VRA, the Court has accorded Congress the full measure of respect its judgments in this domain should garner….