Top Court Ends Part of Voting Rights Act
Sherman, Mark, The Commercial Appeal (Memphis, TN)
WASHINGTON A deeply divided Supreme Court threw out the most powerful part of the landmark Voting Rights Act on Tuesday, a decision deplored by the White House but cheered by mostly Southern states now free from nearly 50 years of federal oversight over their elections.
Split along ideological and partisan lines, the justices voted 5- 4 to strip the government of its most potent tool to stop voting bias the requirement in the Voting Rights Act that all or parts of 15 states with a history of discrimination in voting, mainly in the South, get Washington's approval before changing the way they hold elections.
Chief Justice John Roberts, writing for a majority of conservative, Republican-appointed justices, said the law's provision that determines which states are covered relies on 40- year-old data and does not account for racial progress and other changes in U.S. society.
The decision effectively puts an end to the advance approval requirement that has been used to open up polling places to minority voters in the nearly half century since it was first enacted in 1965, unless Congress can come up with a new formula that Roberts said meets "current conditions" in the United States. That seems unlikely to happen because of the gridlock in Congress.
Arkansas and Tennessee had already been exempted from the requirement that was struck down Tuesday, so Tuesday's decision has little impact in those states.
But Mississippi had remained under the requirement.
Reaction to the ruling from elected officials generally divided along partisan lines.
President Barack Obama, the nation's first black chief executive, issued a statement saying he was "deeply disappointed" with the ruling and calling on Congress to update the law.
Mississippi Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, a Republican, said in a news release, "The practice of preclearance unfairly applied to certain states should be eliminated in recognition of the progress Mississippi has made over the past 48 years."
Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley said that, while the requirement was necessary in the 1960s, that was no longer the case. He said, "We have long lived up to what happened then, and we have made sure it's not going to happen again."
He pointed out that the Alabama Legislature is 27 percent black a similar proportion to the state's overall population as a sign of the state's progress.
"I assure you that as long as I am governor we are not going to discriminate against anyone," Bentley said.
The court challenge came from Shelby County, Ala., a Birmingham suburb.
Rep. Bennie Thompson, a Democrat and the only black lawmaker in Mississippi's congressional delegation, said the ruling "guts the most critical portion of the most important civil rights legislation of our time."
Roberts agreed with elected officials who said they had eliminated racial prejudice in elections, so the law was no longer needed.
"The Act has proved immensely successful at redressing racial discrimination and integrating the voting process. During the 'Freedom Summer' of 1964, in Philadelphia, Mississippi, three men were murdered while working in the area to register African- American voters. On 'Bloody Sunday' in 1965, in Selma, Alabama, police beat and used tear gas against hundreds marching in support of African-American enfranchisement. Today both of those towns are governed by African-American mayors. Problems remain in these states and others, but there is no denying that, due to the Voting Rights Act, our nation has made great strides," Roberts said.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg dissented from the conservative majority, along with the court's three other liberal, Democrat- appointed justices.
"Although the (Voting Rights Act) wrought dramatic changes in the realization of minority voting rights, the act, to date, surely has not eliminated all the vestiges of discrimination against the exercise of the franchise by minority citizens," she wrote. …