The Supreme Court on Tuesday struck down a section of the Voting Rights Act, weakening a tool the federal government has used for nearly five decades to block discriminatory voting laws.
In a five-to-four ruling, the court ruled that Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act is unconstitutional. That section of the landmark 1965 law provides the formula for determining which states must have any changes to their voting laws pre-approved by the Justice Department's civil rights division or the D.C. federal court. Nine states are required to get pre-clearance, as are certain jurisdictions in seven other states.
Chief Justice John Roberts wrote for the majority that Section 4 is unconstitutional because the standards by which states are judged are "based on decades-old data and eradicated practices."
"Nearly 50 years later, things have changed dramatically," Roberts wrote. "The tests and devices that blocked ballot access have been forbidden nationwide for over 40 years. Yet the Act has not eased [Section 5's] restrictions or narrowed the scope of [Section 4's] coverage formula along the way. Instead those extraordinary and unprecedented features have been reauthorized as if nothing has changed, and they have grown even stronger."
The court could have made a much broader ruling by striking down Section 5, which dictates that those states must get pre-clearance. However, the court decided that the Justice Department still has a role in overseeing voting laws -- if Congress is willing to rewrite Section 4.
Nevertheless, civil rights advocates called the ruling a huge blow to democracy.
"The Supreme Court has failed minority voters today," Sherrilyn Ifill of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund said Tuesday outside of the court.
The ruling underscores the Supreme Court's lawmaking powers, challenging Congress' overwhelmingly bipartisan decision in 2006 to renew the Voting Rights Act for another 25 years. Ifill pointed out that the court renewed the law after holding 52 hearings over nine months and amassing 15,000 pages of evidence of discrimination -- including more than 600 objections to voting based on intentional discrimination in the jurisdictions covered by Section 4.