The US Supreme Court building. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
What the US Supreme Court has done, with its decision to strike down essential elements of the Voting Rights Act, is wrong.
But the Court has not gone so rogue as might immediately seem to be the case in a nation that our civics teachers tell us is committed to democratic values.
Rather, the Court’s conservative majority has taken advantage of a gap in the Constitution that must be addressed.
The Court’s 5-4 ruling invalidated the formula used to determine which states come under the requirement that changes to voting laws, procedures and polling place locations in all or part of fifteen targeted states be approved in advance by the Justice Department or a panel of federal judges. The ruling says that Congress went too far in seeking to prevent racial discrimination in voting when it reauthorized the historic act in 2006, with votes of 98-0 in the Senate and 390-33 in the House.
It fell to Congressman John Lewis, the Georgia Democrat who came to national prominence as a civil right movement campaigner for voting rights to say it: "Today, the Supreme Court stuck a dagger into the heart of the Voting Rights Act of 1965."
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg shares that viiew. The justice, in a scathing dissent, wrote, “After exhaustive evidence-gathering and deliberative process, Congress reauthorized the VRA, including the coverage provision, with overwhelming bipartisan support. In my judgment, the Court errs egregiously by overriding Congress’s decision.”
Lewis and Ginsburg are right. As Brennan Center for Justice president Michael Waldman argues: “The Supreme Court’s decision is at odds with recent history. The Voting Rights Act was vital in 2012, not just 1965. For nearly five decades, it has been the nation’s most effective tool to eradicate racial discrimination in voting. And it is still critical today."
Congress can and should come back at the issue, following the counsel of groups such as the Brennan Center, which argues that, because the court rejected the part of the law (Section 4) that determines which jurisdictions are covered by the most vital component of the law for addressing the threat of discrimination (Section 5), "Section 5 stands. Congress now has the duty to upgrade this key protection and ensure our elections remain free, fair, and accessible for all Americans.”
But getting a Congress that can't even pass a Farm Bill won’t be easy at a time when voting issues have been politicized, and when the Voting Rights Act earned the scorn of Republicans who object to its use in legal efforts to strike down restrictive “Voter ID” laws.