A day after the Supreme Court sent affirmative action to a lower court to determine its fate, they dropped the other shoe on Tuesday, killing the vital core of the Voting Rights Act. While the vote on voting procedures, 5-4, was not as decisive as the 7-1 vote on Monday on affirmative action, it was no less disappointing, particularly for civil rights activists.
The vote does not completely eviscerate Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, which required states with a history of discrimination to get preclearance before making any changes on voting procedures; it did invalidate Section 4 as to which states had to adhere to additional scrutiny.
Chief Justice John Roberts, who authored the majority decision in a case named Shelby County v. Holder, wrote, “Coverage today is based on decades-old data and eradicated practices. Our country has changed, and while any racial discrimination in voting is too much, Congress must ensure that the legislation it passes to remedy that problem speaks to current conditions.”
“Scrutiny” and “our country has changed” are the key terms in both these decisions from the Supreme Court. On Monday, the justices, in sending affirmative action to the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans, insisted the court apply strict scrutiny to the case to ensure that all other means of satisfying diversity at colleges and universities had been weighed.
There were a number of activists who were fearful that the court would see both race-laden cases through a so-called post-racial prism, especially given that we now have a Black president.
Just as the court kicked affirmative action down the road, they placed the onus on Congress to be the final arbiter when it comes to voting rights. In effect, the decision leaves Congress an option to reinstate federal oversight. And Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-VT, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said that was exactly what he intends to do.
“I intend to take immediate action to ensure that we will have a strong and reconstituted Voting Rights Act that protects against racial discrimination in voting,” he told the press.
This may be all wishful thinking on Leahy’s part given the gridlock and stalemates that have hampered any kind of progressive movement in Congress, especially from GOP lawmakers.
It appears the justices turned a blind eye to the instances of voter suppression that emerged during the last election. To be sure, there is no grandfather clause, no literacy tests or poll taxes to deny African-Americans the franchise, but the subtle means to block, intimidate and hinder Blacks from exercising their democratic rights was more than just aberration in 2012.
Even more egregious was the comment from Justice Clarence Thomas, who, in a separate opinion, wrote that he was willing to go further and invalidate the Voting Rights Act’s preclearance requirement, Section 5. He viewed the court’s decision as much too narrow and “needlessly prolongs the demise of that provision.”
On the other hand, there is outrage from the Rev. Al Sharpton, president of the National Action Network. “This is a devastating blow to Americans, particularly African-Americans, who are now at the mercy of state governments,” he wrote in an email. “Given last year’s attempts by states to change voting rules, it is absurd to say that we do not need these protections. The National Action Network and I will mobilize nationwide to put the pressure on Congress to come with stricter voter protection laws.
“The National Action to Realize the Dream march that I announced yesterday with Dr. King’s son and daughter in Washington for the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington will now be centered around the protection and restoring of voter protection,” he added. “This ruling has in effect revoked one of Dr. King’s greatest achievements, the teeth of the Voting Rights Acts.”
A joint statement from Speaker Christine C. Quinn and City Council Black, Latino and Asian Caucus Co-Chairs Robert Jackson and Fernando Cabrera, read;
“We are disappointed in today’s Supreme Court decision striking down key components of the Voting Rights Act. Fair elections are at the very core of a healthy democracy, and there is nothing more patriotic than exercising the right to vote as an American citizen.
“Congress must act immediately to re-enact provisions to protect the freedom to vote that pass constitutional muster. We cannot, and we will not, go back to a time when millions of people were denied access to the polls because of arduous local laws designed to disenfranchise entire communities.”
In January, the City Council filed an amicus brief in support of the voting rights of all Americans.