The court declared Section 4 of the act – which lists which states must have changes to their voting rights laws approved by the federal courts – unconstitutional.
The Voting Rights Act was passed to prevent certain southern states from creating undue barriers to voting,such as literacy tests,aimed at suppressing African American suffrage.
Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr.,writing for the majority,said portions of the Voting Rights Act,while enormously effective at its outset,have become dated since the height of the civil rights movement.
He was joined in the majority by Justices Samuel A. Alito Jr.,Clarence Thomas,Anthony M. Kennedy and Antonin Scalia.
“This section coverage violates the Constitution,” Roberts said from the bench. “It looks to conditions as they were in 1965 and earlier.”
The court did not strike down Section 5 of the act,which gives the federal government the authority to mandate that certain states and local governments seek authority to change their own requirements for voting.
Rather,the court,said,Congress would have to do so “based on current political conditions,” not conditions in 1965.
President Barack Obama released a statement expressing deep disappointment.
“For nearly 50 years,the Voting Rights Act – enacted and repeatedly renewed by wide bipartisan majorities in Congress – has helped secure the right to vote for millions of Americans,” it read. “Today’s decision invalidating one of its core provisions upsets decades of well-established practices that help make sure voting is fair,especially in places where voting discrimination has been historically prevalent.”
At a press conference in front of the court building,Sherrilyn Ifill,president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund,said the court had failed generations of minority voters with its ruling.
“Now Congress has to do the right thing,” Ifill said. “And for Congress to do the right thing – the only way they’ve done it in the past – is because we demanded it.”
“When people look at this country and they admire what America has been able to do over the last 50 years,” she said,“they admire the progress that we’ve made despite our history of slavery and racial discrimination and exclusion. That’s what makes us special to the rest of the world.”
Inside the Supreme Court,there was visible division on the bench.
“What has become of the court’s restraint?” Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg asked during her lengthy dissent. It was the third dissent she had read aloud in two days – usually an unusual occurrence.
And as Ginsburg read,Alito – who sits directly to her left – shook his head and rolled his eyes on multiple occasions.
The court ruled on two additional cases Tuesday.
In another 5-4 decision,the court ruled that an American Indian girl from Oklahoma,adopted by a South Carolina couple,would not have to be returned to her biological father,who waived his rights to custody shortly after her birth,only to later change his mind.
South Carolina courts had ruled in the father’s favor,citing the Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978,which was established to prevent American Indian children from being placed with non-Indian adoptive parents.
The Supreme Court overturned that decision. Reading the majority opinion,Alito said the law couldn’t apply to a father who waived custody of his child to begin with.
He was joined by Breyer,Kennedy,Roberts and Thomas.
The other case,another 5-4 decision,found in favor of a Florida landowner,Coy Koontz,Sr.,who,Alito said in his majority opinion,had unreasonable demands placed on him by St. John’s River Water Management District. He was joined by Kennedy,Roberts,Scalia and Thomas.
People waiting for the court’s ruling on the Defense of Marriage Act and California’s Prop 8 –arguably the most anticipated court decisions of this year’s session – were sent home empty-handed again Tuesday.
The court will meet for the final time before its summer recess Wednesday morning,when rulings are expected in both cases.
Reach reporter Memet Walker at [email protected] or 202-326-9867. SHFWire stories are free to any news organization that gives the reporter a byline and credits the SHFWire.