*The Supreme Court struck down Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act on Tuesday, the provision of the landmark civil rights law that designates which parts of the country must have changes to their voting laws cleared by the federal government or in federal court.
The 5-4 ruling, authored by Chief Justice John Roberts joined by Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy, Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito, found that “things have changed dramatically” in the South nearly 50 years after the Voting Rights Act was signed.
The court’s opinion said it did not strike down the act of Congress “lightly,” and said it “took care to avoid ruling on the constitutionality of the Voting Rights Act” in a separate case back in 2009. “Congress could have updated the coverage formula at that time, but did not do so. Its failure to act leaves us today with no choice but to declare [Section 4] unconstitutional. The formula in that section can no longer be used as a basis for subjecting jurisdictions to preclearance.”
“It’s a huge defeat for the civil rights community on the most important civil rights law ever passed,” said MSNBC’s Pete Williams, the first to report on Tuesday’s ruling.
That view was echoed across other networks. ABC’s Terry Moran, for instance, said that “right now, there is no Voting Rights Act operative in the United States.”
Speaking on MSNBC, Al Sharpton called the news “devastating.” Later, he said the Court had “revoked” and “canceled” part of Martin Luther King’s “dream.”
Chief Justice Roberts wrote for the majority: “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.”
“There is no doubt that these improvements are in large part because of the Voting Rights Act. The Act has proved immensely successful at redressing racial discrimination and integrating the voting process,” the majority said.
In his bench statement, Roberts said that Congress had extended a 40-year-old coverage formula based on “obsolete statistics and that the coverage formula “violates the constitution.”
Congress, the court ruled, “may draft another formula based on current conditions.” But given the current makeup of Congress, with Republicans in control of the House of Representatives, many voting rights advocates consider it unlikely that Congress would act to create a new formula.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg issued a wide-ranging dissent on behalf of herself and Justices Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan, justifying the continued vitality of the Voting Rights Act’s preclearance provision.
“The sad irony of today’s decision lies in its utter failure to grasp why the VRA has proven effective,” Ginsburg wrote. “The Court appears to believe that the VRA’s success in eliminating the specific devices extant in 1965 means that preclearance is no longer needed.”