Wednesday, April 2, 2014
The Eleventh Circuit's opinion in Arcia v. Florida Secretary of State, Detzner concludes that Florida's program to remove "suspected non-citizens" from the voter rolls in 2012 violated Section 8(c)(2)(A) of the National Voter Registration Act (the 90 Day Provision) which requires states to “complete, not later than 90 days prior to the date of a primary or general election for Federal office, any program the purpose of which is to systematically remove the names of ineligible voters from the official lists of eligible voters.” 42 U.S.C. § 1973gg-6(c)(2)(A).
While the case rests on an issue of statutory application, it raises two constitutional concerns.
First, there are Article III concerns of standing and mootness, with the Secretary of State arguing the court should not exercise jurisdiction over the matter. The standing argument as to the individual plaintiffs focused on the lack of "injury in fact," but the court found that they were directly injured when they were wrongly identified as noncitizens, even though they were not ultimately prevented from voting. Additionally, they had standing to challenge Florida's second attempt to remove voters by showing "imminent injury." The standing argument as to the organization plaintiffs -- Florida Immigration Coalition, Inc., The National Congress for Puerto Rican Rights, and 1199SEIU United Healthcare Workers East - - - was resolved by the court's conclusion applying both a diversion-of-resources theory and an associational standing theory.
The court likewise rejected the mootness argument. Although the 2012 election had certainly passed, the court found that the situation fit squarely within the “capable of repetition, yet evading review” exception to the mootness doctrine. It reasoned that the challenged action fit both prongs of the test: the action in its duration was too short to be fully litigated prior to cessation or expiration; and there is a reasonable expectation that the same complaining party will be subject to the same action again.
The other constitutional aspect of the case involved the interpretation of the federal statute's 90 day provision itself:
We reject Secretary Detzner’s attempts to have us decide today whether both the General Removal Provision and the 90 Day Provision allow for removals of non-citizens. Certainly an interpretation of the General Removal Provision that prevents Florida from removing non-citizens would raise constitutional concerns regarding Congress’s power to determine the qualifications of eligible voters in federal elections. Cf. Arizona v. Inter Tribal Council of Arizona, Inc., ___ U.S. ___, 133 S. Ct. 2247, 2257 (2013) (“Arizona is correct that the Elections Clause empowers Congress to regulate how federal elections are held, but not who may vote in them.”). We are not convinced, however, that the Secretary’s perceived need for an equitable exception in the General Removal Provision also requires us to find the same exception in the 90 Day Provision. None of the parties before us have argued that we would reach an unconstitutional result in this case if we found that the 90 Day Provision prohibits systematic removals of non-citizens. Constitutional concerns would only arise in a later case which squarely presents the question of whether the General Removal Provision bars removal of non- citizens altogether. And before we ever get that case, Congress could change the language of the General Removal Provision to assuage any constitutional concerns. With this in mind, we will confine our ruling to apply to the plain meaning of the 90 Day Provision and decline Secretary Detzner’s invitation to go further.
The panel opinion, written by Judge Beverly Martin, was not unanimous. While Judge Adalberto Martin joined the opinion, Judge Richard F. Suhrheinrich, United States Circuit Judge for the Sixth Circuit, sitting by designation, wrote a very brief dissent, simply citing the two federal district court cases on the issue.
Thursday, February 27, 2014
Pro Publica has a concise list of state-by-state changes to voting laws since the Supreme Court's ruling last summer in Shelby County. The page includes an interactive map that shows how previously covered jurisdictions have taken advantage of their lack of coverage to impose tighter voting requirements.
Recall that the Supreme Court ruled last summer in Shelby County that Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act, the coverage formula for the preclearance provision (in Section 5), exceeded congressional authority. Chief Justice Roberts wrote that "things had changed" since Congress enacted the VRA in 1965, but that the preclearance coverage formula hadn't kept pace. Moreover, he wrote that a coverage formula that treats states differently, as Sections 4 and 5 did, violated a newly minted principle of equal state sovereignty.
In the immediate wake of the ruling, previously covered jurisdictions like Texas and North Carolina moved swiftly to enact more restrictive voting requirements that were previously denied preclearance--bold, in-your-face moves that illustrated the impact of the Court's ruling. Since that time, more jurisdictions, many of them previously covered jurisdictions, have similarly tightened voting requirements in ways that will likely have disparate impacts on poor and racial minority communities.
Wednesday, January 22, 2014
Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and Representatives Jim Sensenbrenner (R-WI) and John Conyers (D-MI) introduced legislation last week that would amend the Voting Rights Act and recalibrate the coverage formula for preclearance. The legislation responds to the Supreme Court's ruling last summer in Shelby County v. Holder, striking Section 4(b) of the VRA, the coverage formula for the preclearance requirement. That ruling left Section 5 preclearance nearly a dead letter (although litigants could still seek to have a court order a jurisdiction to bail-in to preclearance under Section 3).
The bills would update the coverage formula to include states that have 5 or more voting rights violations during the previous 15 years and political subdivisions that have 3 or more voting rights violations during the previous 15 years. (Coverage would continue for 10 years, unless the jurisdiction gets a court order releasing it.) This new formula would cover Georgia, Louisiana, Misissippi, and Texas, but not Alabama, Arizona, Florida, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Virginia.
The bills also contain a number of other provisions, perhaps most notably expanding Section 3 bail-in so that litigants can ask a court to bail-in a jurisdiction when that jurisdiction has intentionally discriminated (as now) and for any other violation of the VRA. Ari Berman over at The Nation has a nice summary.
The new provisions will undoubtedly be challenged when and if they're enacted. On the one hand, they address a major concern of the Court in Shelby County: they update the coverage formula to use more current violations as the basis for coverage. But on the other hand, they still treat states differently (and potentially run afoul of the Court's new-found "equal sovereignty" doctrine), and the state-wide formula does not account for actual voter turn-out (although the political subdivision formula does) and neither formula addresses the number of elected officials--data that the Court found at least relevant in its ruling.
January 22, 2014 in Cases and Case Materials, Congressional Authority, Elections and Voting, Federalism, Fifteenth Amendment, Fourteenth Amendment, News, Race, Recent Cases, Reconstruction Era Amendments | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack (0)
Monday, September 30, 2013
AG Eric Holder announced today that the U.S. Department of Justice would file suit against North Carolina in federal court to stop its new restrictions on voting. We previously posted on the ACLU suit against the state here.
The complaint alleges that North Carolina HB 589 reduces early voting days, eliminates same-day voter registration during early voting, prohibits the counting of provisional ballots cast outside a voter's precinct, and imposes a voter ID requirement--all in violation of Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act. DOJ argues that the changes have both a discriminatory purpose and a discriminatory effect. The Department also seeks "bail-in" under Section 3(c) of the VRA.
The cases come in the wake of the Court's ruling this summer in Shelby County v. Holder striking Section 4(b) of the VRA, the coverage formula for the preclearance requirement. By striking Section 4(b), the Court rendered Section 5 preclearance a dead letter, unless and until Congress can rewrite it in a way that would pass muster with this Court--that is, likely never. Section 3(c) bail-in works very much like Section 5 preclearance, though. If acourt orders bail-in, it will retain jurisdiction over the state "for such period as it may deem appropriate and during such period no voting qualification or prerequisite to voting or standard, practice, or procedure with respect to voting different from that in force or effect at the time the proceeding was commenced shall be enforced unless and until the court finds that such qualification, prerequisite, standard, practice, or procedure does not have the purpose and will not have the effect of denying or abridging the right to vote on account of race or color . . . ."
The North Carolina and Texas cases are sure to raise two new fronts in the assault on the Voting Rights Act: challenges to congressional authority to enact Section 3(c) bail-in, and challenges to congressional authority under Section 2 to ban state laws that have a discriminatory effect (even if not a discriminatory purpose).
September 30, 2013 in Cases and Case Materials, Congressional Authority, Elections and Voting, Federalism, Fifteenth Amendment, Fourteenth Amendment, Fundamental Rights, News | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack (0)
Friday, September 20, 2013
The Brennan Center filed suit this week in federal court on behalf the Texas State Conference of the NAACP and the Mexican American Legislative Caucus of the Texas House of Representatives challenging SB 14, Texas's strict voter ID law. The Brennan Center's resource page on the case is here.
The suit this week comes soon after the United States Department of Justice filed its own suit against Texas to stop SB 14.
Recall that the Texas AG announced that the state would move to enforce SB 14 soon after the Supreme Court struck the coverage formula for the preclearance requirement in the Voting Rights Act this summer in Shelby County v. Holder.
The suit filed this week, like the DOJ suit before it, also seeks "bail-in" under Section 3(c) of the Voting Rights Act--that is, an order by the federal court for continued monitoring of the state that would operate very much like preclearance under Section 5 would have operated against a covered state like Texas (until the Court struck the coverage formula, leaving Section 5 a dead letter, in Shelby County).
Section 3(c) bail-in may be the next litigation target (after opponents succeeded in challenging the coverage formula for preclearance in Shelby County) for states like Texas facing VRA suits. Texas's responses to these suits will tell.
September 20, 2013 in Cases and Case Materials, Congressional Authority, Elections and Voting, Equal Protection, Federalism, Fifteenth Amendment, Fourteenth Amendment, News, Reconstruction Era Amendments | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)
Wednesday, August 28, 2013
An ABA Journal article by Mark Walsh tells us that last Term, 2012-2013, was "another big one" for amicus curiae briefs at the United States Supreme Court: "Seventy of the 73 cases, or nearly 96 percent, that received full plenary review attracted at least one amicus brief at the merits stage."
The top amicus-attractors?
Shelby County v. Holder, the Voting Rights Act case, attracted 49 amicus briefs, including one from ConLawProf Patricia Broussard (second from right) and her students at FAMU College of Law, as pictured below.
Worth a look, especially for ConLawProfs writing, signing, or assigning amicus briefs.
August 28, 2013 in Affirmative Action, Cases and Case Materials, Current Affairs, Fifteenth Amendment, Fourteenth Amendment, Profiles in Con Law Teaching, Race, Recent Cases, Reconstruction Era Amendments, Supreme Court (US) | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)
Tuesday, August 27, 2013
Several media and legal outlets are running impressive commentaries on this fiftieth anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom led by Martin Luther King, Jr.
Over at ACS blog, Law Prof Atiba Ellis writes on "The Moral Hazard of American Gradualism: A Lesson from the March on Washington." Ellis states, "the question we must confront in 2013 is whether we have been tranquilized into the lethargy of gradualism concerning the work that needs to be done." Ellis highlights the Court's decisions last term in Shelby and in Fisher as examples of "the new American gradualism – retrogressive action under the cover of apathy, spurred by the myth of post-racialism and the supposed fear of constitutional overreach."
And on NPR's Morning Edition, journalist Michele Norris profiles Clarence B. Jones as an attorney and "guiding hand" behind the "I Have a Dream" speech, including the famous "promissory note" metaphor. However, Norris also highlights Jones' memoir Behind The Dream, which had "some unlikely source material." Indeed, Jones' memoir may be more accurate than most, since his memory was augmented by transcripts of every single phone conversation he had with King, courtesy of the FBI, in a wiretap authorized by Robert Kennedy as Attorney General. The NPR story has a link to the FBI archive on King.
August 27, 2013 in Affirmative Action, Books, Current Affairs, Executive Authority, Federalism, Fifteenth Amendment, Fourteenth Amendment, News, Race, Recent Cases, Scholarship, Theory, Thirteenth Amendment | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)
Friday, August 23, 2013
The United States Department of Justice sued the State of Texas in federal court seeking to halt the state's voter ID law and to subject the state to ongoing court monitoring under the Voting Rights Act.
The case comes in response to the Texas Attorney General's announcement that the state would move to implement its restrictive voter ID law. The law, SB 14, was denied preclearance under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act by a three-judge federal court. But the Supreme Court struck Section 5 this summer in Shelby County v. Holder, and vacated the lower federal court's denial of preclearance of SB 14 (and a federal court's denial of preclearance in another case, involving Texas redistricting plans), leaving Texas open to enforce SB 14. (Our coverage of Shelby County is here.) The state AG announced within hours of the Shelby County ruling that the state would move to enforce it. Now the Justice Department has sued to stop it.
DOJ argues that SB 14 violates Section 2 of the VRA both because it was enacted with a discriminatory intent and because it would have a discriminatory effect on the state's Hispanic population. DOJ seeks declaratory and injunctive relief, and continuing federal court monitoring of the state through a preclearance requirement under the "opt-in" provision in Section 3(c) of the VRA. (AG Holder previously announced that he'd seek an opt-in preclearance requirement for Texas in the redistricting case.)
Texas AG Greg Abbott responded to the suit in a press release and gave a glimpse of his defense--the Tenth Amendment.
Just two months ago the U.S. Supreme Court struck down federal preapproval of state election laws. The Court emphasized that the Tenth Amendment empowers states--not the federal government--to regulate elections. The Obama administration continues to ignore the Tenth Amendment and repeated Supreme Court decisions upholding states' authority to enforce voter identification and redistricting laws.
Thursday, July 25, 2013
AG Eric Holder announced today that the U.S. Department of Justice will ask a federal district court in Texas to bail-in Texas for preclearance under the Voting Rights Act. The move, the Department's first after the Supreme Court struck the Section 4 coverage formula for preclearance in Shelby County v. Holder, is part of Holder's announced strategy to use still-available portions of the Voting Rights Act (like bail-in and Section 2 litigation) to enforce voting rights.
If successful, bail-in would mean that Texas would be subject to the preclearance requirement, notwithstanding the Court's ruling in Shelby County. That's because the Court in Shelby County struck the coverage formula for preclearance (in Section 4 of the VRA), but didn't touch other portions of the VRA, including the bail-in provision in Section 3(c). (It also didn't touch Section 5, the preclearance provision.) Under the bail-in provision in Section 3(c), the DOJ can seek continued federal court monitoring of an offending jurisdiction, a freeze on the jurisdiction's election laws, and a requirement that the jurisdiction get permission, or preclearance, from the court or the DOJ before it makes any changes to its election laws.
AG Holder cited the federal court's rejection of preclearance to Texas's redistricting, which the court said had both the purpose and effect of discriminating in the vote, as support for his action. (Recall that the Supreme Court vacated that federal court's rejection of preclearance shortly after it handed down Shelby County.)
If successful, AG Holder will subject Texas again to preclearance. This approach, seeking individual jurisdiction bail-in under Section 3(c) of the VRA, is a more tailored way to target particularly offending jurisdictions than the coverage formula in Section 4, struck by the Court in Shelby County. Still, it may face some of the same problems that Section 4 faced in Shelby County--particularly, it may run up against the new "equal state sovereignty" doctrine that we wrote about here.
July 25, 2013 in Cases and Case Materials, Congressional Authority, Elections and Voting, Fifteenth Amendment, Fourteenth Amendment, Fundamental Rights, News | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)
Friday, July 19, 2013
Justice John Paul Stevens in the New York Review of Books writes a thoughtful "dissent" in the Court's ruling in Shelby County around his review of Gary May's outstanding book Bending Toward Justice: The Voting Rights Act and the Transformation of American Democracy (Basic). Justice Stevens's piece is mostly an indictment of Chief Justice Roberts's majority opinion in Shelby County, based on some of May's study of voting discrimination; but he also has quite kind things to say (and justifiably so) about May's excellent history. (Our posts on Shelby County itself are collected here.)
Justice Stevens writes that May takes a longer, more detailed view of the history of voting than Chief Justice Roberts did in Shelby County--a view that Justice Ginsburg also took in her dissent in that case. He notes that Chief Justice Roberts didn't even mention anything before 1890 in his opinion, and glossed over significant details since.
And Justice Stevens takes on Chief Justice Roberts's new-found doctrine of "equal state sovereignty"--a doctrine that drove a good part of the result. Justice Stevens says that unequal treatment of states is woven right in to the fabric of the Constitution itself. In particular, the three-fifths clause gave southern states a "slave bonus" in political power, giving those states disproportionate representation and even leading to the election of Thomas Jefferson over John Adams in 1800. If the original text of the Constitution itself can treat states so dramatically differently, why this new doctrine of equal state sovereignty? (We posted on this new doctrine here.) (It can be no answer that the Reconstruction Amendments abolished the three-fifths counting system, for the Reconstruction Amendments themselves were specifically designed to give Congress power over the states, and led to dramatically different treatment of the states. It similarly can be no answer that the Tenth and Eleventh Amendments protect state sovereignty (even if they do), because the Reconstruction Amendments came after them. As last-in-time, they at least inform the meaning of the earlier amendments, even if they don't do away with them entirely.)
July 19, 2013 in Cases and Case Materials, Congressional Authority, Courts and Judging, Elections and Voting, Federalism, Fifteenth Amendment, History, News, Reconstruction Era Amendments | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)
Friday, July 12, 2013
Thomas Edsall set out the case earlier this week in the NYT for why the Supreme Court's ruling in Shelby County will have a devastating impact on the already-declining political power of blacks in the South (and around the country). The core thesis: Southern state legislatures have redrawn districts in a way that increases black representation but decreases black political power. They've also enacted other laws, like voter-ID, that primarily hit black, Hispanic, and poor communities.
Wednesday, July 3, 2013
We posted on two state efforts in Texas and North Carolina to enact election laws that would have required federal preclearance before last week's ruling in Shelby County v. Holder. In Texas, the laws were denied preclearance by a three-judge federal court; those rulings, Texas v. Holder and Texas v. United States, were vacated by the Supreme Court two days after Shelby County came down, making way for the laws to go on the books.
I posted at the ACSblog on what this all means, and how it illustrates the stunning impact of Shelby County. In short, the federal courts in the two Texas cases held that Texas's proposed voter-ID law and its redistricting plan for congressional and state legislative districts would likely have a retrogressive effect on the voting rights of racial minorities. (One of those courts also found that Texas drew its redistricting map with a discriminatory purpose.) Now that those cases are vacated, and now that the Texas AG has ordered the laws enforced, we'll soon get a fuller picture of the impact of Shelby County.
Tuesday, July 2, 2013
North Carolina Republicans wasted little time in introducing legislation to tighten voting rules after the Supreme Court last week struck the coverage formula for preclearance in the Voting Rights Act. North Carolina was partially covered by the preclearance provision in Section 5 of the VRA, before the Court struck the coverage formula in Section 4 last week in Shelby County v. Holder. The LA Times first reported this weekend that state Republicans intended to tighten voting rules under their new-found, unfettered authority to act without federal preclearance. Legislation was introduced Tuesday.
SB 721, "Election Omnibus," introduces a voter ID requirement, tightens felon disenfranchisement rules, and limits early voting days.
(State Democrats introduced a competing measure, S 708, the Ella Baker Voter Empowerment Act, that would open up voting in the state.)
North Carolina was a partially covered jurisdiction under Section 4 (before Shelby County struck Section 4): 40 out of 100 of its counties were covered. That meant that those counties had to gain federal preclearance under Section 5 of the VRA before making any changes to their election laws--and to show that their proposed changes wouldn't produce a racially retrogressive effect.
But now that Section 4 is off the books, those counties don't need to gain federal preclearance. And the state can much more easily change its election laws--and enact bills like SB 721.
Still, North Carolina election laws are subject to Section 2 litigation under the VRA.
Friday, June 28, 2013
As we reported shortly after the Court released its opinion in Shelby County v. Holder, striking the coverage formula for preclearance under the Voting Rights Act, Chief Justice Roberts's majority opinion relied heavily on the newly minted doctrine of equal state sovereignty. That doctrine, argues Judge Richard Posner (7th Cir.) at Slate, doesn't exist:
Shelby County v. Holder, decided Tuesday, struck down a key part of the Voting Rights Act (the part requiring certain states with a history of racial discrimination in voting to obtain federal permission in advance to change their voting procedures--called "preclearance") as violating the "fundamental principle of equal sovereignty" of the states. This is a principle of constitutional law of which I had never heard--for the excellent reason that . . . there is no such principle.
So where does this principle come from? It comes from Chief Justice Roberts's majority opinion in Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District Number One v. Holder, the 2009 case holding that NAMUDNO can bail out of preclearance and thus dodging the constitutional question whether Congress had authority to reauthorize preclearance in 2006.
In NAMUDNO, as traced in the pieces linked above, Chief Justice Roberts worried about the "federalism costs" of preclearance, including its intrusion on equal state sovereignty. But he failed to mention that the principle of equal state sovereignty previously applied only to the conditions upon which states were admitted to the Union, and not to day-to-day treatment of the states by Congress, much less congressional treatment of the states under the enforcement power in the Reconstruction Amendments. Justices Stevens, Souter, Ginsburg, and Breyer all signed on to that opinion.
Chief Justice Roberts picked up that NAMUDNO language in Shelby County and ran with it. He also poked Justices Ginsburg and Breyer for signing on to NAMUDNO but dissenting in Shelby County (in part because they said that there is no general doctrine of equal state sovereignty).
This is but one example of the way that Chief Justice Roberts has slowly pulled the Court to the right, argues Adam Liptak in today's NYT--an article well worth reading, whether you think the argument is too strong, too weak, or just right. It involves a slow, patient approach to changing the doctrine--by first writing relatively benign opinions (and gaining the votes of the more liberal Justices) but that nevertheless include potentially explosive language (like the reference in NAMUDNO to the doctrine of equal state sovereignty), then later citing that language (and the fact that the more liberal members signed on) in much, much bigger cases (like Shelby County).
Tuesday, June 25, 2013
The Supreme Court today ruled in Shelby County v. Holder that the coverage formula for the preclearance provision of the Voting Rights Act exceeded congressional authority under the Fifteenth Amendment. The ruling means that the preclearance provision of the VRA remains on the books, but sits dormant, as there is no formula specifying its coverage. Congress can re-write the formula, but it seems unlikely that this Congress can do that in a way that would satisfy this Supreme Court. The ruling did not touch Section 2 of the VRA, the section banning race discrimination and allowing individual case-by-case litigation against offending practices.
We posted several times this morning on the ruling; here is our coverage so far:
- Court Strikes Voting Rights Act Preclearance Coverage Formula
- Chief Justice Roberts's Paean to Equal State Sovereignty
- The Core Problem With Preclearance Coverage Under the Voting Rights Act
- What's Next for Voting Rights?
- Justice Thomas's Concurrence on Voting Rights
- Justice Ginsburg's Dissent in Shelby County
June 25, 2013 in Cases and Case Materials, Congressional Authority, Elections and Voting, Federalism, Fifteenth Amendment, News, Opinion Analysis, Reconstruction Era Amendments | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)
Justice Ginsburg wrote the lengthy and detailed dissent in today's ruling striking the coverage formula for the preclearance provision of the Voting Rights Act. She was joined by Justices Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan.
Justice Ginsburg made several points:
- Congressional authority under the Reconstruction Amendments is vast, and Congress is the principal enforcer of equal voting rights under the Constitution. The Court should defer to Congress in evaluating its enforcement mechanisms--applying rational basis review, under Chief Justice Marshall's famous formulation in McCulloch v. Maryland--and the Court should apply that test even more deferentially for a re-authorization of an act, like the VRA.
- Congress more than did its job in compiling a legislative record of vote discrimination in the jurisdictions covered by Section 4. Justice Ginsburg carefully recounted this record and some particularly egregious violations in her dissent.
- Shelby County, Alabama, of all jurisdictions, had no business bringing this case. Shelby County lodged a facial challenge to Sections 4 and 5, yet Shelby County itself is a clear violator--and should be in any coverage formula that Congress might devise. That means that the coverage formula has at least one valid application--to Alabama--and cannot be struck in a facial challenge. The VRA's severability provision only buttresses this point.
- "Equal state sovereignty," the backdrop for the Court's ruling, applies only to the conditions on states for admission to the Union, not differential treatment outside that context. Justice Ginsburg understates: "Today's unprecedented extension of the equal sovereignty principle outside its proper domain--the admission of new States--is capable of much mischief."
- Preclearance, with the now-struck coverage formula, itself is responsible for the improvements that the Court cites in voting practices. Without it, we face retrogression--that is, falling back into patterns of racial discrimination in the vote. "In the Court's view, the very success of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act demands its dormancy."
While the Supreme Court today struck only the coverage formula for the preclearance provision of the Voting Rights Act, Justice Thomas, concurring alone, would have ruled Section 5 preclearance itself unconstitutional. That's because, according to Justice Thomas, "[t]oday, our Nation has changed." He points to voter turnout and registration rates, which "now approach parity," and the "rare" "[b]latantly discriminatory evasions of federal decrees."
Against these improvements, Justice Thomas argues that Section 5 itself exceeded congressional authority, especially after Congress changed and increased the preclearance requirement in reauthorizing the VRA in 2006.
Justice Thomas wrote just for himself; he garnered no other votes. Still, his ominous conclusion rings true, given the likely inability of Congress to re-write a coverage formula that would satisfy this Court:
While the Court claims to "issue no holding on Section 5 itself," its own opinion compellingly demonstrates that Congress has failed to justify "'current burdens'" with a record demonstrating "'current needs.'" By leaving the inevitable conclusion unstated, the Court needlessly prolongs the demise of that provision.
In the wake of today's ruling in Shelby County v. Holder, striking the coverage formula for preclearance under the Voting Rights Act, the ball's in Congress's court. While the Supreme Court held that the coverage formula in Section 4 is outdated and unconstitutional, it did not touch Section 5 preclearance, and it did not touch Section 2's ban on racial discrimination. (Our posts are here, here, and here. Our oral argument review is here.)
So, Section 2 case-by-case litigation remains in play. Litigants can still sue jurisdictions for racial discrimination in voting on a case-by-case basis. But the problem with this case-by-case approach, as Congress recognized when it reauthorized the VRA in 2006, is that case-by-case litigation really can't catch up with the myriad and clever, under-the-radar ways that some states and jurisdictions now discriminate in the vote--the so-called "second generation" practices. (You can sue your state for a discriminatory vote practice in one election, but by the time the courts rule, the election is over.) Some of these were on full display in the 2012 election.
Preclearance always provided a back-stop for this problem--that was its principal value. Preclearance required covered jurisdictions to gain permission before making any changes to their voting laws, thus shifting the usual burden to the states to show a lack of discrimination. It applied, under the now-struck Section 4, to jurisdictions that had a particularly ugly history of race discrimination in the vote.
Today's ruling strikes the coverage formula in Section 4, but it doesn't strike Section 5 preclearance. That means that preclearance remains on the books, even if it lacks a coverage formula--and therefore preclearance now sits dormant.
That puts the ball back in Congress's court to re-write the Section 4 formula, to give life to preclearance again. Whether Congress can actually do that is a different question. While the VRA passed in 2006 by overwhelming numbers, the inertia was behind the coverage formula then. (Remember that the same basic formula had been around, doing its job, in 2006.) Now Congress will have to start from scratch--to write a formula that calls out certain states and jurisdictions and subjects them to the burdensome process of preclearance. It seems unlikely that this Congress will be able and willing to do that.
If Congress doesn't respond with a valid coverage formula, Section 5 preclearance will remain on the books, but dormant. That will leave Section 2 litigation alone to fight discrimination in the vote. As we've seen, and as Congress found, that will almost surely be insufficient.
The five-Justice majority, led by Chief Justice Roberts, today struck the coverage formula for preclearance under the Voting Rights Act. Our earlier posts are here and here; our oral argument review is here.
In short, Chief Justice Roberts wrote that the Section 4 coverage formula was out of date. He took issue with Congress's "reverse engineering"--that is, figuring out which states should be covered, and working backwards to design a formula that covered them--when it reauthorized the VRA in 2006, because, he wrote, that formula was based on data compiled 40 years ago. He wrote that the coverage formula was rational then; it is not now, 40 years later, with substantially changed circumstances.
Chief Justices Roberts acknowledged that Congress compiled voluminous data demonstrating racial discrimination, but he wrote that the coverage formula reauthorized in 2006 wasn't based on that data. Instead, it was based on 40-year-old data, from the time Congress originally enacted the VRA.
Because the Court saw preclearance as such a dramatic action--shifting the usual burden on the plaintiff to show discrimination to a covered state or jurisdiction to show lack of discriminatory effect in a proposed change in their voting laws, and thus infringing on the "equal sovereignty of the states"--it held the coverage formula to a higher standard. The Court said that the formula, based on 40-year-old data, was simply out of date.
Still, the Court said that Congress could rewrite the formula. This seems a far-fetched possibility, given the politics and divisions in Congress. If it doesn't happen, preclearance under Section 5 remains on the books, but it'll have no effect, because there will be no jurisdictions covered.
Without preclearance, the VRA loses its crown jewel. Section 2 case-by-case litigation against offending jurisdictions remains in play, but, as Congress found, case-by-case litigation has a real hard time keeping up with the clever, under-the-radar ways that some states and jurisdictions use their voting laws to discriminate in the vote.
In striking the coverage formula for the preclearance provision in the Voting Rights Act today, Chief Justice Roberts wrote a good three-plus pages on state sovereignty--and particularly the doctrine of "equal sovereignty." According to the Chief, the coverage formula, which the majority held outdated, violated this principle. More: He wrote that this principle applies beyond the admission of states to the Union; it applies here. The Chief planted this time-bomb in Northwest Austin; it's now coming home to roost.
Here's part of what he said:
Not only do States retain sovereignty under the Constitution, there is also a "fundamental principle of equal sovereignty" among the States. [Northwest Austin (citing United States v. Louisiana); Lessee of Pollard v. Hagan; Texas v. White.] Over a hundred years ago, this Court explained that our Nation "was and is a union of States, equal in power, dignity and authority." [Coyle v. Smith.] Indeed, "the constitutional equality of the States is essential to the harmonious operation of the scheme upon which the Republic was organized." Coyle concerned the admission of new States, and Katzenbach rejected the notion that the principle operated as a bar on differential treatment outside that context. At the same time, as we made clear in Northwest Austin, the fundamental principle of equal sovereignty remains highly pertinent in assessing subsequent disparate treeatment of States.