Tuesday, June 25, 2013
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 While the Supreme Court held that the coverage formula in Section 4 is outdated and unconstitutional, it did not touch Section 5 preclearance, and it did not touch Section 2's ban on racial discrimination.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.
Wednesday, June 19, 2013
In response to Monday's ruling in Arizona v. InterTribal Council of Arizona, Inc., striking Arizona's requirement that voters show proof of citizenship above and beyond the oath of citizenship on the standard federal voter registration form, there's a debate about whether the case is a pyrrhic victory for the federal government. Our most recent post on the case, with links to earlier posts, is here.
On one side, Mary Lederman argued over at SCOTUSblog that the case, for all its talk of federal supremacy over how federal elections are held, probably curtails federal authority over who may vote in them. That's because Justice Scalia, writing for the Court, carefully reserved the power to determine who may vote in federal elections to the states. Lederman seized on Justice Scalia's line that the Elections Clause "empowers Congress to regulate how federal elections are held, but not who may vote in them" and argued that this principle puts in jeopardy current and possible future federal legislation requiring states to register certain persons to vote. For example, he argued that the ruling threatens the Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act, UOCAVA, which requires a state to register for federal electiosn any person who resides outside the United States but would otherwise be qualified to vote in that state; any congressional restriction on state felon disenfrachisement laws; and even federal law upheld under Oregon v. Mitchell. Rick Hasen made a similar point at The Daily Beast, followed up with a post on his own Election Law Blog.
On the other side, David Gans over at the Text and History blog at the Constitutional Accountability Center, argued that Lederman's argument "misses the enduring significance of Justice Scalia's sweeping reaffirmation that the Constitution gives Congress very broad powers to protect the right to vote in federal elections . . . ." Gans and others seized on Justice Scalia's repeated and very strong language affirming federal authority under the Elections Clause--its "paramount power," without a presumption against preemption--to set the rules of the "Times, Places, and Manner" of congressional elections.
So who's right?
Both, it turns out--with an important caveat. The ruling gives Congress broad authority under the Elections Clause to regulate the "Times, Places, and Manner" of congressional elections, including prescribing a federal form, using an oath on that form as evidence of citizenship, and requiring states to petition federal authorities (the EAC) to add a proof-of-citizenship requirement on that form (or to sue to get the EAC to add the requirement). That's the core holding of the case--that the NVRA, with the prescribed federal form, including the oath, is a valid regulation of the "Times, Places, and Manner" of congressional elections that preempts contrary state law.
But the NVRA and the federal form spill over into the state-controlled power to determine who gets to vote, because they regulate the manner of determining an important qualification for voters, citizenship. The Court said that to the extent that a federal law spills over and regulates voter qualification like this, the states must have an opportunity to petition federal authorities and ultimately to sue (under the Administrative Procedures Act) to enforce their own state voter eligibility requirements.
So even under the Elections Clause, the case stands for vast federal authority--authority to set the "Times, Places, and Manner" of congressional election in a way that absolutely preempts state law, and more: to set those standards even when they spill over into regulation of who gets to vote, so long as the states have an opportunity--under a very loose standard--to preserve their power to set voter qualifications through administrative petitioning and APA action. (Note that this administrative petitioning, by the Court's own reckoning, is informal and casual. Note further that APA review is deferential. Between the two, the principle puts the inertia behind federal regulation that spills over into regulation of voter qualification.)
While the Court articulated these rules in the case--that is, that the feds have the absolute power over how to vote, while the states have the power over who gets to vote--even perhaps more clearly than it has in the past, it's not obvious that this breaks any new ground. In particular, it's not obvious that it breaks any new ground reducing the power of the federal government or enhancing the powers of the states. Indeed, if anything, the core holding of the case only underscores the vast power of the federal government at the expense of the states. (While Justice Scalia's line dividing power between the feds and the states may eventually prove to be a "time bomb" (Hasen's phrase), the principal, driving holding of the case reaffirms federal authority.)
So here's the caveat: the Court said all this only with respect to the Elections Clause, but of course made no ruling on any other federal authority to regulate voter qualifications. Thus the Court left in place vast federal power under the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, and left untouched the constitutional rights to travel and to vote. Those authorities and rights, and others, might well support federal authority to enact the UOCAVA and maybe even to restrict certain state felon disenfrachisement laws. If so, Monday's ruling doesn't do anything to those actual and potential federal laws.
Moreoer, Monday's ruling does nothing to the federal laws upheld under Oregon v. Mitchell, or otherwise to undermine whatever holdings came out of that case. (Justice Scalia's footnote 8 does nothing to the vitality or legitimacy of Mitchell, say what you will about the footnote or about Mitchell itself.) Lederman argues that those laws might not withstand scrutiny under the Court's current approach to congressional enforcement power under the Reconstruction Amendments. But, if so, that's a function of City of Boerne, not Monday's ruling. Moreover, some or all of the laws upheld under Mitchell might well be upheld under different authorities. As we know, the Court itself split sharply on the sources of authority in that case, suggesting that those laws might enjoy support under other authorities, not subject to the Elections Clause constraint that states have the power to determine who gets to vote.
In short, Monday's ruling is a clear victory for federal authority under the Elections Clause, with a reservation of qualified state authority to determine who gets to vote in congressional elections even when Congress regulates the "Times, Places, and Manner" of congressional elections in a way that spills over into voter qualifications. (Why "qualified state authority"? Because the Court upheld a federal law that set a standard for voter eligibility, based on the oath on the federal form, so long as the states can petition the EAC and bring an action to court to supplement the oath if they can show that the oath is insufficient. This putting-the-burden-on-the-state when the federal government prescribes a way to determine eligibility is a thumb on the scale in favor of federal power. At the very least, it's an extremely unusual way to preserve and protect state power.) But the ruling does nothing to other constitutional powers that Congress might use to validly enact federal law, and to preempt state law, regarding voter qualifications.
June 19, 2013 in Cases and Case Materials, Congressional Authority, Elections and Voting, Federalism, Fifteenth Amendment, Fourteenth Amendment, News, Opinion Analysis, Privileges and Immunities, Privileges and Immunities: Article IV, Travel | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)
Friday, March 15, 2013
"Equality of the states" reared its head recently in oral arguments in Shelby County v. Holder, the case testing congressional authority to reauthorize the preclearance provision of the Voting Rights Act. The traditionally conservative Justices all (save Justice Thomas) expressed different concerns related to the provision's different treatment of the states--or, how preclearance violates the principle of "equality of the states." (Preclearance under Section 5 of the VRA applies only to covered jurisdictions under Section 4(b) of the VRA. Only covered jurisdictions, not all states, are required to preclear their election law changes with DOJ or the D.C. District court.)
But where does this idea of equality of the states come from?
David Gans over at the Constitutional Accountability Center draws on a recent piece by Adam Liptak and argues that Congress violates a principle of equality of the states all the time--most notably by providing dramatically different levels of funding, per capita, to different states. Nobody makes a constitutional case out of this.
Moreover, Gans argues that "[t]he Supreme Court has never interpreted the Constitution to require equality among the states outside the very narrow context of the admission of new states. It is now black letter law that 'the doctrine of equality of states . . . applies only to the terms upon which the states are admitted to the Union, and not to the remedies for local evils which have subsequently appeared.'"
For more on that point, and how the Court mangled the "equality of the states" quote in Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District v. Holder, check out Zachary Price's contribution to the SCOTUblog symposium on Shelby County, and Federalism and the Voting Rights Act at the ACS blog.
March 15, 2013 in Cases and Case Materials, Congressional Authority, Federalism, Fifteenth Amendment, Fourteenth Amendment, News, Reconstruction Era Amendments | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)
Wednesday, March 13, 2013
The controversies surrounding the Court's impending decision in Shelby County v. Holder regarding the constitutionality of the Voting Rights Act's "preclearance" provision (section 5) have been exacerbated by Justice Scalia's remarks about "racial entitlement." Seemingly, at issue for the Justices - - - originalist and otherwise - - - is the meaning of the enforcement clauses of the Fifteenth and Fourteenth Amendments: "The Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation."
In a provocative new article, A Structural Theory of Elections, available in draft on ssrn, ConLawProf Franita Tolson (pictured) seeks to redirect our attention to section 2 of the Fourteenth Amendment:
Representatives shall be apportioned among the several states according to their respective numbers, counting the whole number of persons in each state, excluding Indians not taxed. But when the right to vote at any election for the choice of electors for President and Vice President of the United States, Representatives in Congress, the executive and judicial officers of a state, or the members of the legislature thereof, is denied to any of the male inhabitants of such state, being twenty-one years of age and citizens of the United States, or in any way abridged, except for participation in rebellion, or other crime, the basis of representation therein shall be reduced in the proportion which the number of such male citizens shall bear to the whole number of male citizens twenty-one years of age in such state.
Tolson's attention is not to the language that first introduced gender into the Constitution ("male inhabitants") or to the change in counting those male inhabitants ("excluding Indians") or to the subsequent change in voting age, but to the broad ability of Congress to change the apportionment for voting rights violations. She argues that this previously under-emphasized language makes the Court's "congruence and proportionality" standard for evaluating Congressional power inapplicable in the voting and election contexts.
Tolson's article is a closely reasoned and excellently researched argument for the broad enforcement powers of Congress intended by the Framers of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments. She ultimately contends "that requiring preclearance of all electoral changes instituted by select jurisdictions under section 5 of the Voting Rights Act is actually a lesser penalty than reduced representation under section 2, and is thus consistent with Congress’s broad authority to regulate voting and elections under the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments."
Tolson's article is certainly worth a read for anyone considering the issues at the heart of Shelby County v. Holder.
Thursday, March 7, 2013
Justice Antonin Scalia's remark during the oral arguments in Shelby County v. Holder last week characterizing the preclearance provision of the Voting Rights Act as a "racial entitlement" has garnered much attention, including "gasps" in the Supreme Court chambers itself.
Of course, the ability of Scalia's comments to provoke is not new: his statements in last year's oral arguments in Arizona v. United States regarding the constitutionality of SB1070 drew particular attention.
In the Shelby argument, Scalia described the Voting Rights Act provision and its reenactments as
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.
To what writings does Justice Scalia refer? ConLawProf Chad Flanders, in a news commentary that is itself garnering attention, suggests that Justice Scalia might be referencing Professor Scalia's own writings. Flanders points to Scalia's article, The Disease as Cure: “In Order to Get Beyond Racism, We Must First Take Account of Race,” 1979 Wash. U. L. Rev. 147, available here.
Scalia's writing is not an article but rather published as a "Commentary" and obviously taken from his remarks on a panel at a Symposium entitled "The Quest for Equality." Scalia describes himself as the "anti-hero" of the panel: the other commentator was Herma Hill Kay and the main paper was by Harry T. Edwards. (Ruth Bader Ginsburg delivered the main paper on the next panel.) His subtitle is derived from Justice Blackmun's dissenting and concurring opinion in Regents of University of California v. Bakke, 438 U.S. 265, 407 (1978).
Scalia indeed does use the term "racial entitlement" in his remarks:
The affirmative action system now in place will produce the latter result because it is based upon concepts of racial indebtedness and racial entitlement rather than individual worth and individual need; that is to say, because it is racist.
But of course, his rejection of "racial indebtedness" was clear in his 1995 concurring opinion in Adarand Constructors, Inc. v. Pena, 515 U.S. 200, in which the Court held an affirmative action policy unconstitutional. Scalia wrote then:
[image: caricature of Antonin Scalia by DonkeyHotey via]
Linda Greenhouse's NYT "Opinionator" column is almost always worth a read.
But yesterday's column entitled "A Big New Power" is a must-read for anyone considering the Court's pending opinion in Shelby County v. Holder and the controversy surrounding Scalia's remarks during the oral argument.
Years from now, when the Supreme Court has come to its senses, justices then sitting will look back on the spring of 2013 in bewilderment. On what basis, they will wonder, did five conservative justices, professed believers in judicial restraint, reach out to grab the authority that the framers of the post-Civil War 14th and 15th Amendments had vested in Congress nearly a century and a half earlier “to enforce, by appropriate legislation” the right to equal protection and the right to vote.
Greenhouse admits she is forecasting the outcome, but her column makes that outcome seem less palatable.
Wednesday, February 27, 2013
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.
February 27, 2013 in Cases and Case Materials, Congressional Authority, Elections and Voting, Federalism, Fifteenth Amendment, Fourteenth Amendment, Fundamental Rights, News, Oral Argument Analysis, Reconstruction Era Amendments | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)
As the Court - - - and the country - - - consider the Voting Rights Act (VRA) and the constitutionality of the preclearance provision at issue in Shelby County v. Holder ConLawProfs might find useful the insights of Andrew Cohen, Atiba Ellis, Adam Sewer (on CJ Roberts), Adam Winkler or numerous others. But the observations of William Faulkner (pictured), Nobel Prize in Literature recipient who placed Yoknapatawpha County, Mississippi on our (fictional) maps are also pertinent according to Joel Heller's excellent article, Faulkner’s Voting Rights Act: The Sound and Fury of Section Five, 40 Hofstra Law Review 929 (2012), and available on ssrn.
Joel Heller argues that pronouncements that 'The South has changed' fail to take into account the "ongoing burden of memory that Faulkner portrays so powerfully." Heller contends that the VRA's section 5 preclearance provision "does not punish the sons for the sins of the father, but keeps in check the uncertain consequences of a current ongoing consciousness of those sins." Heller uses Faulkner to effectively discuss various attitudes short of intentional discrimination that might nevertheless have racially discriminatory results. These include lawmakers shame and denial of the past accompanied by a devotion to the "things have changed" mantra that would prevent perceptions of racially problematic actions. Additionally, "local control" possesses a nostalgic power, even as the era being evoked was one of white supremacy.
While Faulkner did not live to see the VRA Act become law, Joel Heller's engaging article is definitely worth a read as the Court considers Congressional power to remedy discrimination in the Old/New South.
[image of William Faulkner via]
February 27, 2013 in Books, Congressional Authority, Elections and Voting, Fifteenth Amendment, History, Race, Reconstruction Era Amendments, Scholarship, Supreme Court (US) | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)
Saturday, February 23, 2013
Entitled "After 50 Years, the Voting Rights Act's Biggest Threat: The Supreme Court," Andrew Cohen's extensive article just published in The Atlantic is a must-read for anyone following the Court's pending oral argument (on Wednesday, February 27) in Shelby County v. Holder.
Recall that the Court's grant of certiorari last November 9 put the Voting Rights Act (VRA) "in the crosshairs" of the Court - - - as we said at the time - - - noting that the VRA's constitutionality had been seriously questioned but ultimately evaded by the Court's 2009 decision in Northwest Utilities District of Austin v. Holder . The DC Circuit had upheld the constitutionality of the preclearance provisions of the VRA.
Andrew Cohen's article provides a terrific contextualize of the politics, including the Court's politics, that surround the constitutional controversy. Cohen writes that "racial polarization has intensified during the Obama Administration," with "'explicit anti-black attitudes'" around the country, "especially among Republicans," many of whom "sponsored and enacted some of the voter suppression laws of the 2012 cycle." Cohen also argues that the Court essentially "invited many of the state voter suppression efforts of the past three years" by its decisions, including not only Northwest Utilities District of Austin v. Holder, but also the 2008 decision in Crawford v. Marion County, upholding a voter identification statute. Cohen contends: "Having created the factual and legal conditions to undermine the federal law, the Court now is poised to say that it is weakened beyond repair."
Cohen concludes that the stakes in Shelby are very high:
If the Court strikes down Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, this year especially, given the record of the past three years, the justices who do so will reveal a disconcerting level of disconnect from the realities of modern American politics as they were expressed in the near-unanimous renewal of the Act in 2006. And the partisan ruling they would issue in this circumstance would be even more brazenly ideological and untethered from precedent than the Citizens United ruling issued in January 2010.
Cohen's timely, provocative, and well-argued article is definitely worth a read and would be a great suggested reading for law students considering the issue.
February 23, 2013 in Courts and Judging, Current Affairs, Elections and Voting, Fifteenth Amendment, History, Interpretation, Race, Supreme Court (US), Teaching Tips | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)
Monday, January 7, 2013
Pamela Karlan's "Democracy and Disdain" is the Forward to Harvard Law Review's annual Supreme Court issue for the 2011 Term and is a compelling - - - indeed, necessary and delightful - - - read. Karlan's central thesis, as the title aptly communicates, is that the Roberts' Court has little but disdain for the democratic process. By "Roberts' Court," of course, she means the five Justices who usually form the majority, including Roberts, Scalia, Thomas, Alito, and Kennedy.
The Roberts Court’s narrow substantive reading of enumerated powers maps fairly closely onto the contemporary conservative political agenda. To the extent that the conservative agenda gains popular acceptance, the Court may garner acclaim as a guardian of constitutional values. But if the public rejects that agenda, or remains sharply divided, the Court risks being perceived as simply another partisan institution. The Court’s current status rests in substantial measure on its having been on the right side of history in Brown v. Board of Education. Only time will tell whether the Court will retain that status given the choices the Roberts Court is making.
Karlan is adept at comparing the present Court to previous ones, not only including the Warren Court. Spoiler alert: When she quotes Justice Roberts, she might not be quoting the 2012 John Roberts but the 1936 Owen Roberts, a device she uses to especially good effect. Also to good effect is her usage of other justices, colloquies in oral argument, the occasional poet, and theorist. The writing is broad and engaging without being precious. It makes her analysis of the cases even more trenchant, situated in larger themes and trends.
Of course, not all ConLawProfs will agree with Karlan's views of the Court, including one subsection entitled "Protecting Spenders and Suspecting Voters," and another "Suspecting Congress." And Karlan's argument is hardly unique, as anyone who recalls Rehnquist Court scholarship, including the excellent 2001 article "Dissing Congress," by Ruth Colker and James J. Brudney can attest. And it is especially noteworthy that the Court did uphold the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act in National Federation of Independent Business v. Sebelius, a case that Karlan extensively discusses and more interestingly, situates within the Term's other less notable decisions.
But this is a must read article before beginning the new semester.
[image of Pamela Karlan via]
January 7, 2013 in Courts and Judging, Due Process (Substantive), Elections and Voting, Fifteenth Amendment, First Amendment, Fourteenth Amendment, History, Interpretation, Race, Recent Cases, Reconstruction Era Amendments, Scholarship, Separation of Powers, Supremacy Clause, Supreme Court (US) | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)
Friday, November 9, 2012
The Supreme Court on Friday agreed to hear the Shelby County challenge to the preclearance provision of the Voting Rights Act as reauthorized in 2006. The preclearance provision, Section 5, is the centerpiece of the VRA; it requires covered jurisdictions--those with a particularly ugly history of discrimination in voting--to obtain preclearance from the U.S. Department of Justice or a three-judge federal court in D.C. before making any changes to their voting laws. The Court criticized Section 5 just three-and-a-half years ago in Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District v. Holder for not keeping up with improvements in covered jurisdictions and for intruding on the states. The Court wrote that Section 5 raised "serious constitutional questions," but declined to rule on its constitutionality. Thus Section 5 survived Northwest Austin--but just barely.
The cert. grant in the Shelby County case asks whether Section 5 is unconstitutional in light of Congress's reauthorization of it using pre-existing Section 4(b) coverage. Section 4(b) sets a formula for which states and counties are covered jurisdictions and therefore must obtain preclearance before changing their voting laws. The two sections go hand-in-hand, and a ruling overturning Section 5 would render Section 4(b) null. But a ruling overturning only Section 4(b) could leave Section 5 in place. Such a ruling would require Congress to go back and determine the covered jurisdictions more carefully--something some say it failed to do when it reauthorized the VRA in 2006 (and hasn't done since).
The way the Court poses the question presented leaves this possibility open--and it's the more restrained option for a Court inclined to overturn something in the 2006 reauthorization. But it seems highly unlikely. Section 5 is almost certainly the real target, whatever the coverage formula in Section 4(b). Here's the QP:
Whether Congress' decision in 2006 to reauthorize Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act under the pre-existing coverage formula of Section 4(b) of the Voting Rights Act exceeded its authority under the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments and thus violated the Tenth Amendment and Article IV of the United States Constitution.
The QP's references to the Tenth Amendment and Article IV ensure that the case will center on federalism concerns. Northwest Austin said as much, with its language suggesting that Section 5 unduly intrudes on the states.
The Court took no action on another Section 5 challenge, Nix. Petitioners in that case filed their cert. petition at the same time that the Shelby County petitioners filed, in late July.
November 9, 2012 in Cases and Case Materials, Congressional Authority, Courts and Judging, Federalism, Fifteenth Amendment, Fourteenth Amendment, News, Reconstruction Era Amendments, Tenth Amendment | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)
Sunday, September 2, 2012
Following an earlier ruling last week by a three-judge panel of the D.C. District denying Section 5 preclearance to Texas legislature's redistricting plans, a Western District of Texas panel ruled on Friday that the most recent court-drawn plans will remain in place for the upcoming elections.
The ruling means that the court-drawn plans will govern the upcoming elections--even though at least one of those plans, the congressional district plan, was based closely on the Texas legislature's original plan that was denied preclearance earlier in the week.
This can all seem confusing, so let's sort it out from the beginning. The Texas legislature redrew maps for its congressional, state senate, and state house seats in response to its ballooning and shifting population in the 2010 census and to maintain one-person-one-vote in its districts. But Texas was required to gain preclearance under Section 5 of the VRA before it implemented those plans. So it sought preclearance from a three-judge panel of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. (It could have alternatively sought preclearance from DOJ, but it didn't.)
While the Section 5 case was pending, plaintiffs challenged the plans in the United States District Court for the Western District of Texas, alleging that the plans violated Section 2 of the VRA. The Texas court, recognizing that the Section 5 case was pending but that the D.C. court had not yet ruled, ruled in favor of the plaintiffs and redrew the maps. Texas appealed to the Supreme Court, and the Court invalidated the maps, in Perry v. Perez.
The Texas court went back to the drawing board and came up with new court-drawn maps, more closely based on the Texas legislature's original maps. (The original maps were still pending Section 5 preclearance in the D.C. court.) Nobody challenged the newly redrawn maps by the Western District court--at least not yet.
Earlier last week, the D.C. District finally ruled that the Texas legislature's original redistricting maps did not merit preclearance under Section 5 of the VRA. The ruling didn't touch the most recent court-drawn maps by the Western District, however. Those maps seemed to stay in place. (Texas announced later last week that it would appeal the Section 5 ruling to the Supreme Court. That announcement doesn't affect the Western District's maps--at least until the Supreme Court rules.)
After the D.C. court ruling last week, the Western District set a status conference for Friday to sort it all out. According to the order, the court preliminarily assumed that its own most recent maps would govern the 2012 elections, but it offered parties an opportunity to argue otherwise. Only one plaintiff in the original Section 2 case argued that the most recent court-drawn maps shouldn't govern: the League of United Latin American Citizens argued that the court's congressional map was invalid, because it was based too closely on the Texas legislature's original congressional map, which failed preclearance earlier in the week.
The Western District rejected that argument and ruled from the bench that its own redrawn maps would govern the 2012 elections. It also asked the parties for proposals by December 1 on how to move forward.
Unless there are any surprise moves--and they'd have to be a real surprise, and real quick, given the timing--the latest court-drawn plans will govern the upcoming elections.
Meanwhile, the Texas legislature's plans may go to the Supreme Court. But even if they do, the application of Section 5 will hardly be the most interesting issue related to the VRA before the Court. That's because the Court is almost certain to grant cert. to a challenge to the constitutionality of Section 5. If so, and if the Court, as expected, overturns Section 5, the Texas legislature's original plans may go back into place--but only after the 2012 elections.
September 2, 2012 in Cases and Case Materials, Congressional Authority, Courts and Judging, Elections and Voting, Fifteenth Amendment, Fourteenth Amendment, News, Opinion Analysis | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)
Tuesday, August 28, 2012
In the latest chapter of the Texas redistricting saga, a three-judge panel of the D.C. District ruled in Texas v. United States that Texas's redistricting maps failed to merit preclearance under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act.
The ruling means that the Texas legislature's original redistricting maps fail. But the ruling doesn't touch the interim maps most recently drawn by the Western District of Texas in the companion Section 2 suit. Those maps have not been challenged.
The ruling also doesn't say anything about the constitutionality of Section 5. That's the topic of a cert. petition now before the Supreme Court.
Recall that the case arose when Texas sought preclearance for its redrawn State House, State Senate, and Congressional districts from the three-judge panel in the D.C. District (and not the DOJ). (Texas redrew its districts to account for its ballooning population and to meet the one-person-one-vote standard. But Texas, as a covered jurisdiction under Section 4 of the VRA, had to receive preclearance under Section 5 before it could finalize and implement the new maps.) Soon after Texas filed its Section 5 preclearance case, opponents of the maps filed a claim under Section 2 of the VRA in the Western District of Texas. While the Section 5 case was pending in the D.C. District, the Western District drew its own maps that, it said, complied with the VRA so that Texas could move ahead with its scheduled primary elections.
Meanwhile, the Section 5 case in the D.C. District moved forward, and that court ruled today that the state's original maps--the ones for which it originally sought preclearance--did not merit preclearance. As a result, the only maps out there seem to be the Western District's redrawn maps.
Today's case says nothing about the constitutionality of Section 5. The D.C. Circuit recently ruled on that question, and said that Section 5 is constitutional. The cert. petition in that case, Shelby County v. Holder (and a related, companion case), is now before the Supreme Court.
The Texas redistricting case is something of a side-show, now that the more central issue in Shelby County is on cert.--with the Supreme Court almost surely to grant review. But even if the Court overturns Section 5, as seems likely, any maps still have to pass muster under Section 2--the original cause of action in the Western District case. Shelby County doesn't challenge Section 2.
August 28, 2012 in Cases and Case Materials, Congressional Authority, Elections and Voting, Fifteenth Amendment, Fourteenth Amendment, News, Opinion Analysis, Reconstruction Era Amendments | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack (0)
Wednesday, August 22, 2012
Alaska became the latest state to lodge a constitutional challenge against Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act when it sued AG Eric Holder yesterday for declaratory and injunctive relief in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia. It's not clear that the case will even make it out of the starting gate, though. As we wrote here, the Shelby County case, also challenging Section 5 under the exact same theories, is almost surely going to the Supreme Court this Term.
The suit, State of Alaska v. Holder, takes on Section 5 both on its face and as applied to Alaska. The allegations are simple and familiar: Congress exceeded its authority under the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments in reauthorizing Sections 4 and 5 of the VRA; and the VRA violates the principle of "equal sovereignty" and the Tenth Amendment.
Alaska, a covered jurisdiction under Section 4 of the VRA, says that preclearance is a hassle and potentially interferes with its ability to run its elections. The state cites DOJ's denial of preclearance earlier this year for a proposed new distribution scheme for the state's Spanish/Tagalog translation of its voter information pamphlet. It also cites an eleventh-hour preclearance of a redistricting plan, arguing that any later decision by DOJ (either way) might have interfered with the state's primaries.
While this case is disconnected to those events, it probably doesn't matter for standing. Judge Bates ruled in Shelby County that the County had standing based on its need, as a covered jurisdiction without the possibility of bailout, to prepare for preclearance--the time, expense, etc. So too here.
But even so, the case is unlikely to move forward, given the near certainty that the Supreme Court will pick up Shelby County this Term.
August 22, 2012 in Cases and Case Materials, Congressional Authority, Equal Protection, Fifteenth Amendment, Fourteenth Amendment, News, Reconstruction Era Amendments | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)
Monday, July 23, 2012
Petitioners Shelby County and John Nix filed two separate cert. petitions late last week seeking Supreme Court review of a D.C. Circuit decision upholding the preclearance provisions of the Voting Rights Act. Shelby County's petition is here; Nix's petition is here. More on the differences below.
The petitions put the preclearance provisions of the Voting Rights Act squarely before a Supreme Court that seems chomping at the bit to take them on--and to overturn them.
The move was expected. With the Supreme Court's statement three years ago in Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District v. Holder that the preclearance provisions "raise serious constitutional questions," the Court's reiteration more recently in Perry v. Perez, and the spate of challenges now percolating in the lower courts, Shelby County v. Holder was the first circuit ruling dealing squarely with the 2006 reauthorization of the VRA. A split three-judge panel upheld the provisions and ruled that another, related case (Nix's case) was moot. The ruling teed the challenge up for Supreme Court review.
At issue: Section 5 of the VRA, which requires covered jurisdictions to obtain "preclearance" from the Department of Justice or a three-judge panel of the United States District Court for the District of Columbia before making changes to their voting standards, practices, or requirements; and Section 4(b), which provides the formula for determining which jurisdictions are covered.
Recall that the D.C. Circuit in Shelby County upheld Section 5 and Section 4(b) of the VRA. But that court also ruled that Nix's case--challenging the new reauthorization standards that Congress put into place in the 2006 reauthorization--was moot, because the DOJ reversed course and cleared the voting change at issue.
The two cert. petitions cover two distinct issues. Shelby County's cert. petition argues that the D.C. Circuit erred in upholding Sections 5 and 4(b). In short, Shelby argues that the preclearance requirement in Section 5 exceeds congressional authority to enforce the provisions the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments--that it's not "proportional and congruent" to the "evil" that it seeks to remedy--and that Congress neglected to change the coverage formula in Section 4(b) in response to changed conditions.
Nix's cert. petition argues that the substantive changes to the preclearance standard that Congress enacted in 2006 exceed congressional authority. Nix says that Congress, in reauthorizing Section 5 in 2006, changed the preclearance standard in response to two Supreme Court decisions that narrowed that standard, thus exceeding its authority. Nix claims that before 2006, preclearance could be denied only if the jurisdiction failed to prove that its voting change did not have the "purpose" or "effect" of causing "a retrogression" in minorities' "effective exercise of the electoral franchise," as determined by "all the relevant circumstances." (Citing and quoting Georgia v. Ashcroft and Reno v. Bossier Parish School Board.) But Nix argues that Congress changed this standard in the 2006 reauthorization by eliminating the "all relevant circumstances" flexibility and by requiring covered jurisdictions to "prove that even a change that does not make minorities worse off lacks the 'discriminatory purpose' of not making them better off." These changes, say Nix, exceed congressional authority.
Because the D.C. Circuit ruled Nix's case moot, Nix has the additional burden of arguing that his case isn't really moot. He does this by claiming that the DOJ cleared the jurisdiction only to avoid judicial review of his arguments.
With two strong statements from the Court about the questionable constitutionality of VRA preclearance, look for the Court to grant these petitions--and likely overturn these key provisions of the VRA.
July 23, 2012 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)
Friday, May 18, 2012
A divided three-judge panel of the D.C. Circuit today affirmed a lower court decision and upheld key provisions in the Voting Rights Act. The majority in Shelby County v. Holder held that Section 5, the so-called pre-clearance provision, and Section 4(b), the section that designates covered jurisdictions under Section 5, fell within congressional authority under the Fifteenth Amendment and thus were constitutional. We covered the case in the lower court here and here; those posts contain more thorough background.
The ruling tees up the case for Supreme Court review. The high Court has strongly suggested that it was just waiting for a good case to take on the constitutionality of these key provisions of the VRA. It dodged the constitutional question three years ago in Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District v. Holder. This case gives it a second crack, with the constitutional question unavoidably front-and-center.
When the case goes to the Supreme Court--and it's all but certain a "when," not "if"--it'll turn on how the Court treats and scrutinizes congressional findings (as it did in the D.C. Circuit). In particular: Do congressional findings adequately support Sections 5 and 4(b)? If we want a preview of those arguments, we can simply look to the arguments over methodology and congressional conclusions in this case--most or all of which are thoroughly vetted in the 100-page opinions.
But there's another question to watch for: By what measure will the Court scrutinize congressional findings? In other words: How much leeway will the Court give to Congress, if congressional findings don't exactly line up with Section 5 and 4(b). This Court has suggested that it won't give much.
Congress had a thorough record when it reauthorized the VRA in 2006. The question is whether it was thorough and precise enough for this Court. Based on what we've seen from this Supreme Court, the answer is probably no; and we should brace ourselves for a sharply divided ruling that the VRA exceeds congressional authority.
In the D.C. Circuit, Judge Tatel started the majority opinion with a hat-tip to Northwest Austin and the Court's statement there that there were serious constitutional questions with the VRA--showing the court's full recognition of the importance of this case. The ruling then uses the framework in Northwest Austin to analyze the constitutionality of Section 5:
First, emphasizing that section 5 "authorizes federal intrusion into sensitive areas of state and local policymaking that imposes substantial federalism costs," the Court made clear that "[p]ast success alone . . . is not adequate justification to retain the preclearance requirements." . . . Second, the Act, through section 4(b)'s coverage formula, "differentiates between the States, despite our historic tradition that all the States enjoy equal sovereignty."
Op. at 14.
In a ruling that claimed deference to congressional judgments--but nevertheless included scores of pages of scrutiny of those judgments--the court held that Congress had satisfied both questions in reauthorizing the VRA in 2006. (Along the way,the court held that the Fourteenth Amendment's "proportional and congruent" test is also the appropriate one for the Fifteenth Amendment.)
Judge Williams dissented, writing that Section 4(b), the section setting criteria for designation as a covered jurisdiction, was too rough a cut to meet the demands of the Fifteenth Amendment. This illustration summarizes the point:
Why should voter ID laws from South Carolina and Texas be judged by different criteria (at a minimum, a different burden of persuasion, which is often critical in cases involving competing predictions of effect) from those governing Indiana? A glimpse at the charts shows that Indiana ranks "worse" than South Carolina and Texas in registration and voting areas, as well as in black elected officials . . . . As to federal observers, Indiana appears clearly "better"--it received none . . . . As to successful Section 2 suits South Carolina and Texas are "worse" than Indiana, but all three are below the top ten offenders, which include five uncovered states . . . . This distinction in evaluating the different states' policies is rational?
Dissent, at 32.
May 18, 2012 in Cases and Case Materials, Congressional Authority, Courts and Judging, Elections and Voting, Federalism, Fifteenth Amendment, News, Opinion Analysis, Reconstruction Era Amendments | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)
The D.C. Circuit ruled today in LaRoque v. Holder that a plaintiff's challenge to the preclearance provision of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act was moot after the Attorney General withdrew its objection to a referendum making local elections nonpartisan in Kinston, North Carolina, a covered jurisdiction. We previously posted on the case here.
The ruling comes the same day as the same three-judge panel affirmed the constitutionality of Sections 5 and 4(b) of the VRA. (Judge Williams dissented in that case.)
The court rejected the plaintiff's claims that the AG might again object to voting changes (that the objections are capable of repetition but evading review) and that a ruling that Section 5 is unconstitutional would make it easier for the plaintiff to ask North Carolina to nullify the last election (conducted as a pre-referendum partisan election) and give him a do-over.
The ruling says nothing about the constitutionality of Section 5. But that doesn't matter: The other case today, Shelby County, affirming the constitutionality of Section 5, is all but certainly heading to the Supreme Court.