U.S. Supreme Court

Supreme Court Rules for Alabama Governor in Voting Rights Case

The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled Alabama Gov. Bob Riley did not need advance approval from the Justice Department before filling a county commission vacancy.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote the 7-2 majority opinion (PDF posted by SCOTUSblog), the Associated Press reports. She said the issue was a narrow one and did not have broader application to voting rights disputes.

Ginsburg said a 1985 Alabama law on the power to fill county commission vacancies had never actually been in effect because it violated the state constitution, SCOTUSblog reports. As a result, the state’s reversion to a prior practice did not represent a change in election machinery triggering the Voting Rights Act.

The case was Riley v. Kennedy.

An appeals court had invalidated the governor’s appointment and ordered a special election. A comment posted by New York University law professor Richard Pildes on the Election Law Blog says the majority decision is representative of the court’s increasing skepticism about the need for federal oversight of areas with a history of illegal discrimination under the act’s Section 5.

“This shift reflects skepticism about whether parts of the VRA remain as necessary and justifiable in the circumstances of politics today as they did in the first generation of the VRA’s existence,” Pildes writes. “The decision came down 7-2, which might obscure the significance of the signals the case sends, but note that the court had to overturn a three-judge court below to reach this conclusion.”

Even the dissenters are increasingly skeptical of section 5, Pildes says. He notes the dissent written by Justice John Paul Stevens, joined by David H. Souter, in which he writes: “It may well be true that today the statute is maintaining strict federal controls that are not as necessary or appropriate as they once were.”

Loyola law school professor Rick Hasen of the Election Law Blog had speculated in an earlier post that the obscure case could be a blockbuster if an argument suggested by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. gained ground. Roberts had suggested during oral arguments that the only changes subject to preclearance are amendments from rules in effect in November 1964, when the Voting Rights Act was first adopted.

Hasen notes that Ginsburg’s opinion leaves Roberts’ views for another day.

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