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Lawyers USA’s take: Court upholds state sovereignty

WASHINGTON — Invalidating a key Civil Rights era statutory provision designed to stop efforts to impede blacks from voting in the nation’s southern states, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the pre-clearance coverage formula under the Voting Rights Act, ruling that it violates states’ sovereignty rights.

While the act’s general prohibitions of discrimination based on race or color remain intact, the 5-4 decision in Shelby County v. Holder invalidates §4 of the statute, which establishes a formula to determine what voting districts are subject to an additional pre-clearance requirement that bars any change in voting procedures without approval by the U.S. Department of Justice. The decision strikes only the pre-clearance coverage formula, which was originally designed to expire after five years, not the pre-clearance requirement itself established by §5 of the act. The ruling prevents Congress from continuing to reauthorize the pre-clearance requirement without devising a new formula based on the current climate.

Writing for the majority, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. noted the “exceptional conditions” that existed when the statute was enacted that justified a departure from the general rule barring federal preapproval of state and local laws. But without a finding based on determination of current condition, the provision does not continue to pass constitutional muster.

“Nearly 50 years later, things have changed dramatically,” Roberts wrote. Yet “Congress did not use the record it compiled to shape a coverage formula grounded in current conditions. It instead re-enacted a formula based on 40-year-old facts having no logical relation to the present day.”

In a dissent that she announced from the bench, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote that the decision of whether pre-clearance requirements are necessary rests with Congress, not the court. Congress had sufficient factual basis to reauthorize, Ginsburg concluded.

“The grand aim of the Act is to secure to all in our polity equal citizenship stature, a voice in our democracy undiluted by race. As the record for the 2006 reauthorization makes abundantly clear, second-generation barriers to minority voting rights have emerged in the covered jurisdictions as attempted substitutes for the first-generation barriers that originally triggered preclearance in those jurisdictions,” Ginsburg wrote in a dissent joined by justices Justice Stephen G. Breyer, Sonia M. Sotomayor and Elena Kagan.

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