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High court cripples Voting Rights Act provision


why courts matter [1]In its 5-4 decision today in Shelby County v. Holder [2], the U.S. Supreme Court essentially gutted the requirement that covered jurisdictions with a history of voting discrimination (including 40 counties in North Carolina) seek approval from the federal government before making any changes to their voting laws or procedures.

In his opinion, joined by Justices Scalia, Kennedy, Thomas, and Alito, Chief Justice John Roberts claimed that the Court was not invalidating the principle that preclearance can be required. Rather, he said, the Court was merely discarding the coverage formula used to determine which jurisdictions had the preclearance obligation:

Our decision in no way affects the permanent, nationwide ban on racial discrimination in voting found in [Section] 2. We issue no holding on [Section] 5 itself, only on the coverage formula. Congress may draft another formula based on current conditions.

The practical effect, though, is that preclearance is at least stalled until Congress enacts a new coverage formula — not likely to be a speedy process, if it occurs at all.

According to Adam Liptak at the New York Times [3], “The chances that the current Congress could reach agreement on where federal oversight is required are small, most analysts say.”