WASHINGTON – The legal legitimacy of the historic Voting Rights Act was called into question Monday by a nearly unanimous Supreme Court.
"The historic accomplishments of the Voting Rights Act are undeniable, but the Act now raises serious constitutional concerns," Chief Justice Roberts wrote.
Monday's opinion does not overturn the law but it does weaken it by expanding the ability of all voting entities covered by a specific provision of the law to escape its oversight.
The opinion will undoubtedly lead to an increase in voting districts seeking exemption from the Act's "preclearance" requirements and with the apparent open invitation from the Court lead to a future lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the law itself. Such a case would likely reach the Supreme Court which has had no trouble upholding the law in the past. But this opinion clearly suggests another review could lead to a different outcome.
Preclearance requires voting entities in certain—mostly southern states—to get approval from the Justice Department before making any changes to its election procedures. The rule was instituted to combat attempts by local voting officials to suppress minority turnout—a significant problem in the Jim Crow era.
"More than 40 years ago, this Court concluded that 'exceptional conditions' prevailing in certain parts of the country justified extraordinary legislation otherwise unfamiliar to our federal system," Roberts wrote. "In part due to the success of that legislation, we are now a very different Nation. Whether conditions continue to justify such legislation is a difficult constitutional question we do not answer today."
But Justice Clarence Thomas wanted to answer that question now. He agreed with the Court's holding as far as it went but said it should have done much more. "The violence, intimidation, and subterfuge that led Congress to pass [the preclearance provision of the Voting Rights Act] and this Court to uphold it no longer remains."
Monday's case was brought by a small utility district in Austin, Texas. After holding elections in the garage attached to Jack Steuber's house for a number of years, the District decided the local elementary school would a more appropriate venue. However, because Texas is a state covered by the 1965 law, the district's change required DOJ approval—something the district did not feed was necessary.
The district sued the federal government on the belief that as an entity created after the Voting Rights Act took effect and with no history of race related election problems it should be able "bail out" of federal oversight. Monday's opinion agreed with that assessment.