U.S. Supreme Court
High Court Narrowly Interprets Voting Rights Act: Keeps Section 5
Posted Jun 22, 2009 9:00 AM CST
By Molly McDonough
With only one justice partially dissenting, the U.S. Supreme Court today narrowly interpreted the Voting Rights Act in a way that saves it.
The high court held that a utility district in Austin, Texas, can opt out of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, a key provision of the civil rights law, which requires all or parts of 16 mainly southern states with a history of voter discrimination to get pre-approval before changing ways that elections are conducted, according to the Associated Press and SCOTUSblog.
The decision (PDF) reverses a lower court ruling, but avoids confronting more weighty constitutional issue.
Writing for the majority, Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr., notes that "The historic accomplishments of the Voting Rights Act are undeniable." But, he continues, the act "now raises serious constitutional concerns. The preclearance requirement represents an intrusion into areas of state and local responsibility that is otherwise unfamiliar to our federal system."
He opined that the Voting Rights Act "must be interpreted to permit all political subdivisions ... to seek to bail out from the preclearance requirements."
SCOTUSblog notes that in his dissent, Justice Clarence Thomas said that 45 years after Congress initially passed Section 5, "the violence, intimidation and subterfuge" that led to its enactment "no longer remains." He would simply nullify Section 5 rather than offer a bailout opportunity.
"Because the court’s statutory decision does not provide [NAMUDNO] with full relief, I conclude that it is inappropriate to apply the constitutional avoidance doctrine,” Thomas wrote.
Thomas, however, agreed with the outcome of the case, which exempts the utility district from the law.
ABA Journal: "The Future in Black and White: In the era of President Barack Obama, race relations still play out"