Friday, June 28, 2013

How Did We Get the Principle of Equal State Sovereignty (in the Shelby County Case)?

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.

Eric Posner recently made a similar point here; I made a similar point here.

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).


Cases and Case Materials, Congressional Authority, Courts and Judging, Elections and Voting, Federalism, Fifteenth Amendment, News | Permalink

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