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SCOTUS strikes portion of Voting Rights Act; will hand down term’s final decisions Wednesday

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The Supreme Court of the United States held Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act is unconstitutional Tuesday, ruling that its formula can no longer be used as a basis for subjecting jurisdictions to pre-clearance. The case stems from Shelby County in Alabama asking for a declaratory judgment that sections 4(b) and 5 are facially unconstitutional and a permanent injunction against their enforcement.

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was created to address racial discrimination in voting. Section 4 provides a “coverage formula,” defining the “covered jurisdictions” as states or political subdivisions that maintained tests or devices as perquisites to voting and had low voter registration or turnout. Section 5 says no change in voting procedures can take effect until approved by authorities in Washington, D.C. The states covered by the original enactment were Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina and Virginia, but subsequent amendments of the Act added other states or portions of other states and it now applies to nine states and several additional counties.

The coverage formula and preclearance requirement have been reauthorized over the years, but the coverage formula has not changed.

The 5-4 decision in Shelby County v. Holder, 12-96, delivered by Chief Justice John Roberts, held Section 4’s formula is unconstitutional in light of current conditions. The provisions of Section 5 only apply to those jurisdictions singled out by Section 4.

“Nearly 50 years later, things have changed dramatically,” Roberts wrote. “The tests and devices that blocked access to the ballot have been forbidden nationwide for over 40 years.”

“Striking down an Act of Congress ‘is the gravest and most delicate duty that this Court is called on to perform.’ We do not do so lightly,” he continued. “That is why, in 2009, we took care to avoid ruling on the constitutionality of the Voting Rights Act when asked to do so, and instead resolved the case then before us on statutory grounds. But in issuing that decision, we expressed our broader con¬cerns about the constitutionality of the Act. Congress could have updated the coverage formula at that time, but did not do so. Its failure to act leaves us today with no choice but to declare §4(b) unconstitutional. The formula in that section can no longer be used as a basis for subjecting jurisdictions to preclearance.”

Associate Justice Clarence Thomas wrote a concurring opinion in which he explained that he would find Section 5 unconstitutional as well. Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg authored a dissent, joined by Associate Justices Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan. She wrote, “The sad irony of today’s decision lies in its utter failure to grasp why the VRA has proven effective. The Court appears to believe that the VRA’s success in eliminating the specific devices extant in 1965 means that preclearance is no longer needed. With that belief, and the argument derived from it, history repeats itself.”

The justices also handed down:
•    Adoptive Couple v. Baby Girl, 12-399, which held assuming for the sake of argument that the biological father is a “parent” under the Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978, neither Section 1912(f) nor (d) bars the termination of his parental rights; and
•    Koontz v. St. Johns River Water Management District, 11-1447, which held the government’s demand for property from a land-use permit applicant must satisfy the Nollan/Dolan requirements even when it denies the permit.

The Supreme Court will meet for the last time this term at 10 a.m. Wednesday to hand down decisions, which likely will include the two cases addressing same-sex marriage and the Defense of Marriage Act: Hollingsworth v. Perry, 12-144, and United States v. Windsor, 12-307.

The other case expected to be handed down is Sekhar v. United States, 12-357, which asks whether the recommendation of an attorney who is a salaried employee of a governmental agency, in a single instance, is tangible property that can be the subject of an extortion attempt under 18 U.S.C. Section 1951 and Section 875(d).

 

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