June 22, 2009
Supreme Court on Voting Rights Act - Northwest Utilities v. Holder: Analysis
The United States Supreme Court has decided Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District Number One v. Eric Holder, Jr, opinion as pdf here reversing the district judge. However, the Court, in a 8-1 opinion authored by CJ Roberts does not hold section 5 of the Voting Rights Act unconstitutional (as some had anticipated). Instead, the Court engaged in statutory interpretation to hold that "all political subdivisions—not only those described in §14(c)(2)—are eligible to file a bailout suit." (Opinion at 16).
However, in its relatively brief opinion (about 16 pages), the Court had much to say about the Voting Rights Act and the Court's own role. First, the Court made it clear that while it was "undeniable" that §5 of the Voting Rights Act had produced "historic accomplishments," the section "imposes substantial federalism costs" in terms of federal intervention, especially given that states are not treated equally ("preclearance requirements in one State would be unconstitutional in another"). The Court then stated it was "keenly mindful" of its "institutional role" balancing its respect for Congress as a coequal branch of government with the Court's duty as the bulwark of a limited constitution against legislative encroachments (citing The Federalist).
Justice Thomas dissenting in part based upon his argument that the Court should have reached the constitutional issue. The Court's opinion specifically addressed that position with citations to the lower court, the briefs, and oral argument:
The district expressly describes its constitutional challenge to §5 as being “in the alternative” to its statutory argument. See Brief for Appellant 64 (“[T]he Court should reverse the judgment of the district court and render judgment that the district is entitled to use the bailout procedure or, in the alternative, that §5 cannot be constitutionally applied to the district”). The district’s counsel confirmed this at oral argument. See Tr. of Oral Arg. 14 (“[Question:] [D]o you acknowledge that if we find in your favor on the bailout point we need not reach the constitutional point? [Answer:] I do acknowledge that”).
Opinion at 10-11.
In sum, this is a narrow opinion on a statutory basis, not likely to change Voting Rights Act litigation in any substantial manner, and not likely to change the syllabus in constitutional law courses.
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