Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Court Seems Poised to Overturn Voting Rights Act

The Supreme Court today heard oral arguments in Shelby County v. Holder, the case testing the constitutionality of the preclearance provision and related coverage formula of the Voting Rights Act.  If the questions at arguments are any indication of the Court's leaning--and it's always dicey to predict based on arguments, but here perhaps less so than in a more ordinary case--it looks like preclearance or the coverage formula or both will go down by a close vote.

Section 5 of the VRA, the preclearance provision, provides that "covered jurisdictions" (defined under Section 4(b)), have to get permission from the Justice Department or a federal court in the District of Columbia before making changes to their election laws.  This means that jurisdictions need to show that proposed changes to their election laws aren't motivated by race and won't result in disenfranchising voters or dilluting votes by race.  This extraordinary remedy is justified in part because the more usual way of enforcing voting rights--individual suits against offending jurisdictions--is not an effective way to address voting discrimination.  (Individual suits, by a voter or by the Department of Justice, are authorized by Section 2 of the VRA.  Section 2 is not at issue in this case.)

Shelby County, which sits within fully covered Alabama, brought the facial challenge against Section 5, the preclearance provision, and Section 4(b), the coverage formula, as reauthorized by Congress in 2006, arguing that Congress exceeded its authority under the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments.  In particular, Shelby County claimed that Congress didn't have sufficient evidence in its 2006 reauthorization to require the covered jurisdictions to seek permission (or preclearance) from the Justice Department or the District Court in the District of Columbia before making any change to its election laws.  Shelby County also said that preclearance for the covered jurisdictions violated principles of federalism and equal sovereignty among the states.

The arguments were lively, to say the least.  The justices seemed to be arguing with each other more than questioning the attorneys, who often seemed more like bystanders in a debate among the nine.  And they all seemed to have their minds made up, more or less.  If there are swing votes, look to Chief Justice Roberts or Justice Kennedy.  Although they seemed set in their positions, they seemed perhaps the least set.  

Substantively, there were few surprises.  Remember, we've heard these arguments before--in the NAMUDNO case, which the Court ultimately resolved by allowing the jurisdiction to bail out (and thus avoided the constitutional question, although the parties briefed it and it got attention at oral argument).  So these points that came up today are familiar:

  • Whether Congress had sufficient evidence to warrant preclearance for selected covered jurisdictions;
  • Whether the Section 4(b) coverage formula, which dates back 40 years or so, is sufficiently tailored to the realities of voting discrimination in 2013--that is, whether some covered jurisdictions under this formula really ought not to be covered, and whether others should be covered, given contemporary disparities in registration and offices held and other indicia of voting discrimination;
  • Whether Congress violated principles of equal state sovereignty by designating only selected jurisdictions as covered (rather than designating the whole country);
  • Whether Section 2 individual suits are a sufficient way to enforce non-discrimination in voting (and therefore whether Section 5 is really necessary); and
  • Whether with a string of reauthorizations preclearance will ever not be necessary.

On this last point, it was clear that for some justices the government was in a tough spot.  On the one hand, the government argued that Section 5 deters voting discrimination: Sure, things have gotten a little better since 1965, it said, but Section 5 is still justified because it deters against a back-slide.  But on the other hand, some on the Court wondered whether under this theory Section 5 would ever not be necessary.  (By this reckoning, the government would be justifying Section 5 even when there's no evidence of continued discrimination.)

All this is to say that a majority seemed unpersuaded that this preclearance requirement and this coverage formula were sufficiently tailored--proportionate and congruent, the Court's test--to meet the constitutional evil of voting discrimination that Congress identified.  

This doesn't mean, necessarily, that the whole scheme will go down.  There is an intermediate position: The Court could uphold Section 5 preclearance in theory, but reject the coverage formula in Section 4(b).  But this result would likely doom the whole scheme, in fact.  That's because it seems unlikely that Congress could pass a different coverage formula or that Congress would extend preclearance to the whole country.  Without specifying coverage in a new Section 4(b), Section 5 would be meaningless.

There was a low point.  Justice Scalia went on a tear toward the end of SG Verrilli's argument, opining on why Congress passed each reathorization with increased majorities:

Now, I don't think that's attributable to the fact that it is so much clearer now that we need this.  I think it is attributable, very likely attributable, to a phenomenon that is called perpetuation of racial entitlement.  It's been written about.  Whenever a society adopts racial entitlements, it is very difficult to get out of them through the normal political processes.

It's not exactly clear what's the "racial entitlement" in Section 5.  Section 5 is simply not an entitlement provision.  But if we have to identify an entitlement: Maybe the right to vote, without being discriminated against by race?  If so, we can only hope that it's "very difficult to get out of [it] through the normal political processes."  As much as anything else in the arguments today, this comment may tell us exactly why we continue to need preclearance, sadly, even in 2013.

SDS

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