Yesterday the Supreme Court struck down Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act as unconstitutional, abolishing constraints imposed on six Southern states in 1965 to address widespread discrimination against blacks in registration and voting.
The court’s 5-4 decision rejected the notion of continuing to penalize Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina and Virginia along with many North Carolina counties for past sins. Ditto for three other states and a number of local political subdivisions added after 1965. Referring to the 15th Amendment’s prohibition against racial discrimination in voting, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote for the majority: “The amendment is not designed to punish for the past; its purpose is to ensure a better future.” Amen.
The ruling struck a blow for the constitutional rights of states and the equality of the states. The court declared that “states retain broad autonomy in structuring their governments and pursuing legislative objectives.” Citing the 10th Amendment — now in danger of pre-emption by an over-reaching federal government — the decision pointedly observed that “the Constitution provides that all powers not specifically granted to the federal government are reserved to the states or citizens.” Amen again.
“Not only do states retain sovereignty under the Constitution, there is also a ‘fundamental principle of equal sovereignty’ among the states,” the court held, citing a 1960 ruling, adding: “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.’”
The Voting Rights Act “employed extraordinary measures to address an extraordinary problem,” requiring the covered states “to obtain federal permission before enacting any law related to voting — a drastic departure from basic principles of federalism.” And Section 4, “applied that requirement only to some states — an equally dramatic departure from the principle that all states enjoy equal sovereignty.”
These unprecedented measures originally were scheduled to expire after five years.
“Nearly 50 years later, they are still in effect; indeed, they have been made more stringent, and are now scheduled to last until 2013,” the court said — despite the dramatic progress made by the South in minority voting.
Since the act was passed, the court said, “Census Bureau data indicate that African-American voter turnout has come to exceed white voter turnout in five of the six states originally covered ... with a gap in the sixth state of less than one half of one percent.”
The court noted that in a 2009 ruling the tribunal expressed concerns about the constitutionality of the Voting Rights Act. But Congress did nothing. “Its failure to act leaves us today with no choice but to declare S4(b) unconstitutional,” the court said.
Kudos to the court majority. The decision was long overdue.