WASHINGTON-Since the civil rights movement, nine mostly Southern states and certain other districts have been required by law to obtain approval from the federal government before making any changes to the way they run elections. The law was based on histories of racial prejudices at the polls, such as requiring African-Americans to pass literacy tests in order to vote.
Monday, in a near unanimous decision, the Supreme Court issued an opinion that preserved that portion of U.S. law but set the stage for election districts with healthy civil rights records to challenge the requirement. Chief Justice John Roberts, writing the majority opinion, said the state approval requirement "raises serious constitutional concerns."
Dennis Coyle, professor of politics at Catholic University and a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, said, "It's about Roberts ducking a constitutional question and keeping a unanimous court and respecting the powers of Congress. But underneath that there's a tone that asks, 'Is this constitutional?' It fits with his disposition."
The court ruled that a district in Texas could proceed with election reform without a thumbs up from Washington. The original law requiring approval, Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, was enacted in 1965. When Congress last renewed the law in 2006, then-Sen. Barack Obama said the rule was still necessary. "Despite the progress these states have made in upholding the right to vote, it is clear the problems still exist," he told The New York Times.
Southern lawmakers saw the rules as burdensome and needless.
"If you move a polling place from the Baptist church to the Methodist church, you've got to go through the Justice Department," Rep. Jack Kingston, R-Ga., told The Washington Post in the debate over the bill.
Roberts, in his opinion, wrote, "The historic accomplishments of the Voting Rights Act are undeniable." But he added, "Things have changed in the South. . . . Blatantly discriminatory evasions of federal decrees are rare."
The ruling gives Congress an opening to discuss the constitutionality of the law. While the justices did not rule on whether the law itself is unconstitutional, a portion of the opinion argues against its constitutionality.
"The Court's opinion will go down in history I think as among the chief justice's most significant, and a model for his philosophy of judicial minimalism," wrote Tom Goldstein in an analysis piece for the SCOTUS blog. Roberts has said he would try to unify the historically fractious court in its opinions-though unity has been scarce under his leadership so far.
The only dissent came from Justice Clarence Thomas, who believed the law should have been ruled unconstitutional.