Friday, July 19, 2024

Supreme Court to Rule on Voting Rights Act Provision

On Wednesday, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments for what is being called the most significant case of this term.  If the conservative-leaning court rules the way some civil rights groups fear, it could strike down a central provision of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that was designed to protect minority voters.

The case, Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District No.1 vs. Holder, was brought by a small Texas water district which was asking to be allowed to “bail out” of the Act’s Section 5 – a provision put in place which requires a handful states, and portions of other states, to seek approval from the Justice Department before making any changes to their election laws. This provision was implemented to combat racism and to make it easier for millions of African Americans, Latinos and other minorities to exercise their right to vote.

The Supreme Court, in four separate previous rulings, has upheld Section 5. But the court has become more conservative recently, specifically with the addition of Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito. In similar civil rights cases brought to the court the decision is usually reached with a 5-4 vote, Justices falling clearly on ideological lines. The swing vote is Justice Anthony M. Kennedy who is generally more conservative but moderate on civil rights issues.

Opponents of the voting rights law argue that theses protections are no longer needed after more than 40 years of progress, and they use Obama’s election as proof that America has changed since 1965. Chief Justice Roberts, who is a conservative member of the Supreme Court, questioned whether the law would continue for too long. “I mean, at some point, it begins to look like the idea is that this is going to go on forever,” he said.

Defenders of the measure say many minority voters still face discrimination in some local elections. NAACP Washington Bureau Director Hilary Shelton, a strong supporter of Section 5, explained “the re-authorization was fully vetted because it went through 30 hearings in the U.S. House and Senate. It was found by the Congress that even though progress had been made by minorities, there were still many instances of trickery and devices used to lock minorities out of the voting process.”

During the oral arguments made yesterday Justice Kennedy was very active and asked many questions of all parties. Though questioning at the Supreme Court is not an absolute indicator of likely votes, it appears that Justice Kennedy believes the justifications offered by Congress were less than perfect and he questioned the selective provisions that Section 5 enforces. “Congress has made a finding that the sovereignty of Georgia is less than the sovereign dignity of Ohio,” Justice Kennedy said. “The sovereignty of Alabama is less than the sovereign dignity of Michigan. And the governments in one are to be trusted less than the governments in the other.”

A decision is expected to be made in June. If the court decides to strike down Section 5, Congress would be able to reexamine what jurisdictions should be covered. But making distinctions among the states based on new criteria may not be politically feasible. It costs the states and cities that have been abiding by these provisions billions of dollars over a ten year period to comply. Springing new provisions on states or cities that have not been included in the past would be a costly administrative undertaking according to Nathaniel Persily, a law professor at Columbia.

For the first time this term, the Supreme Court on Wednesday agreed to release the audio recording of the justices presiding over arguments on the same day they heard a case. In the past, the Supreme Court has generally released recordings of case arguments in the following term.

The New York Times

Link to the Audio Recording via New York Times


Seattle Medium

National Journal


  1. […] 22, 2009 by latinovations As previously reported in La Plaza, the Supreme Court was asked to rule on the case Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District No.1 […]