The Court’s ruling today means that Section 4’s formula can no longer be used as a basis for subjecting jurisdictions to preclearance under the Voting Rights Act. SCOTUSblog Editor Amy Howe broke down the Court's ruling and its immediate implications thusly:
The Chief Justice delivered the opinion of the Court, which was joined by Justices Scalia, Kennedy, Thomas, and Alito. The Court began by acknowledging that when the Voting Rights Act was enacted, it “employed extraordinary measures” – in the form of restrictions on the independence of the covered states – to combat the “extraordinary problem” of widespread voter discrimination. In 1966, the Court explained, these restrictions, which were intended to be temporary, were justified, and the formula used to determine who should be covered “made sense” then.
But today, fifty years later? Not so much. In the Court’s eyes, “things have changed dramatically.” When judged by a variety of measures – such as voter registration, voter turnout, and the number of African Americans elected to office — conditions have improved significantly in the states that are covered by the preclearance requirements. The Court agrees that these changes “are in large part because of the Voting Rights Act”; despite those improvements, the Court complains, the formula that determines who must comply with the preclearance requirement is “based on decades-old data” and practices – such as literacy tests – that were long ago abandoned. Because it isn’t fair for Congress to “rely simply on the past” to single out a few state and local governments for unequal treatment “based on 40-year-old facts having no logical relationship to the present day,” the coverage formula cannot stand.
The last section of the Court’s opinion is the judicial version of throwing the Voting Rights Act ball back across First Street N.E. to Congress. Emphasizing that invalidating a federal law is one of its most serious responsibilities, and that it “do[es] not do so lightly,” the Court makes clear that in its view, only Congress is to blame here. Four years ago, it warned Congress that the constitutionality of the law was in doubt; “Congress could have updated the coverage formula” then, but it failed to do so. “Its failure to act,” the Court explains, “leaves us today with no choice but to declare [the coverage formula] unconstitutional.”
Thank God for judicial review. (Well, thank the Marshall Court, but their decision in Marbury v. Madison was probably guided by divine providence anyway.) As the Court ruled yesterday, “The Fifteenth Amendment . . . is not designed to punish for the past; its purpose is to ensure a better future.” The majority stopped short of drawing a bright line or laying out a clear standard for determining what constitutes "appropriate legislation" under Amendment XV, but they rejected the notion that Congress is entitled to absolute deference on that subject (and for good reason).
The reality of 2013 is that even the left is hard pressed to find anyplace in the country where anyone who is legally entitled to vote and wants to exercise their franchise is being prevented from doing so. Stating that is not to deny that racism still exists in some quarters of American society anymore than any other species of hatred. Nor does it imply that our electoral system is perfect or incapable of betterment. But to leave in place a legal formula that treated some states differently than others solely because of history is not only absurd, it is unconstitutional discrimination. In a country where, as it was argued before the court, Mississippi may have a more healthy voting rights environment in some respects than Massachusetts, preserving the battle lines of the fight against Jim Crow is not only meaningless, it actually hampers efforts to combat illegal practices.
But the main interest of those dedicated to preserving the status quo wasn’t in preventing states from denying a right to vote that is not in question. It was in holding onto their capacity to use federal law to prevent some states from passing voter ID laws that have been wrongly branded as a form of discrimination or voter suppression. The vast majority of Americans—including the members of those groups that civil rights advocates claim will be injured by voter ID laws—think these measures are merely a matter of common sense to ensure the integrity of the election system. But by disingenuously waving the bloody shirt of Jim Crow, the left has sought to brand race-neutral laws like voter ID a form of racism.
Should the Congress endeavor to take up such legislation, however, there must be a vigorous debate over whether any law that is selectively applied only to some states and localities, based on constantly changing statistics that will require frequent re-examination, is wise policy. The anachronistic character of these provisions in the Voting Rights Act and the problem of leaving the Act as is was summed up splendidly in the following paragraph of the Court's opinion yesterday:
In 1965, the States could be divided into two groups: those with a recent history of voting tests and low voter registration and turnout, and those without those characteristics. Congress based its coverage formula on that distinction. Today the Nation is no longer divided along those lines, yet the Voting Rights Act continues to treat it as if it were.
It is a disturbing display of dissonance that those who wanted the Court to let Section 4 stand express concern for making sure that all Americans are treated equally under the law, when Section 4 itself stood in affront to that concept.