In a five to four decision, the Supreme Court ruled that Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 is unconstitutional. Chief Justice John Roberts, writing for the majority, found that the criteria for requiring states to get their voting related legislation approved by the US Attorney General were outdated and not reflective of the current situation.
In particular, Chief Justice Roberts singled out Congress for not updating the legislation when it was up for renewal in 2006. He writes:
“Congress did not use that record to fashion a coverage formula grounded in current conditions. It instead re-enacted a formula based on 40-year-old facts having no logical relation to the present day.”
The main implication of this ruling is that without the formula specified in Section 4, the restrictions imposed in Section 5 are toothless. This puts the onus on Congress to legislate a new set of criteria for determining the application of Section 5 to the states.
I have to say that while on the face of it this decision sounds like a disaster for voting rights, in reality it was the right move. Using a formula that is forty years old to determine which states would face serious restriction on their sovereignty poses serious problems for states’ rights. And as the Chief Justice pointed out, a lot has changed since 1965. We have a black president, many minorities in Congress and local government, and there’s nothing resembling the systematic discrimination that existed in the early 1960s. Times have changed and laws must change with them.
One issue that is concerning is that it is now up to Congress to pass legislation that create a new voting rights formula for the 21st century. Obviously, passing any legislation in this current Congress is a tall order and without a new formula, the protections that are in section 5 cannot be enforced.
Supreme Court to Congress: It’s your problem now.