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Shelby County, Alabama v. Holder

    Brief Fact Summary.

    Shelby County, Alabama (Plaintiff) was covered by §4(b) of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (“the Act”). Plaintiff challenged both § 4(b) and § 5 of the Act as unconstitutional on its face.

    Synopsis of Rule of Law.

    The coverage formula found in § 4(b) of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 is facially unconstitutional.

    Facts.

    The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was passed in order to address systemic disenfranchisement of black voters. Some of the provisions of the Act only applied to certain jurisdictions with a history of racial discrimination in voting. § 5 of the Act required that covered jurisdictions get federal approval for any changes to their voting procedures. § 4(b) provided the formula for determining which jurisdictions would be subject to § 5’s requirement. The formula defined the covered jurisdictions as those with tests or other measures as prerequisites to voting and low voter registration or turnout in the 1960s or 1970s. The Act was initially intended to last five years, but was continuously renewed. The last renewal of the Act took place in 2006 and reauthorized the Act for 25 years. Despite the repeated renewals, § 4(b)’s coverage formula remained the same—the criteria remained based upon state impediments to voting and low registration or turnout in the 1960s and 1970s. The Supreme Court opinion in Northwest Austin Municipal Util. Dist. No. One v. Holder, 557 U.S. 193 (2009) expressed doubts regarding the Act’s continued constitutionality. Plaintiff, a covered jurisdiction under the Act, then sought a declaratory judgment that §§ 4(b) and 5 are unconstitutional and a permanent injunction against their enforcement. The Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the Act, and the Supreme Court granted certiorari.

    Issue.

    Is the coverage formula defined in § 4(b) of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 facially unconstitutional?

    Held.

    :  (Roberts, C.J.) Yes. The coverage formula found in § 4(b) of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 is facially unconstitutional. The burdens imposed by the Act must be justified by current needs. The statute departs from the fundamental principle that states are equal sovereigns. For such a law to be constitutional, this unequal treatment of the states must be sufficiently related to the problem it targets. The Tenth Amendment reserves to the states all powers not specifically granted to the federal government, including the right to regulate elections. The Act requires certain states to request permission from the federal government to implement laws they would otherwise be able to implement on their own. In 1966, the Court upheld the Act based upon exceptional conditions present at that time. The coverage formula made sense under those conditions and was rational in both practice and theory. Now, things have changed dramatically. Voter turnout and registration in covered jurisdictions have grown and African American turnout is almost equal to white voter turnout. Tests and other devices used in the 1960s have been forbidden and African Americans hold public office at unprecedented levels. While the Act is likely the reason for many of these changes, it has not been updated to reflect them. § 4(b) must be analyzed in light of current conditions. The coverage formula in use today is based on decades-old data and practices no longer in use. This is no longer rational in theory and practice. The Government’s argument that the formula remains relevant so long as any discrimination is found today in the covered jurisdictions still relies on evaluating the states as they were in 1965, not as they are today. Although Congress compiled current examples of discrimination before reauthorizing the Act, the provision in the Act itself does not rely on current conditions, but still uses the record from the 1960s and 1970s. If Congress wishes to serve the purpose of the Fifteenth Amendment, and in doing so, divide the states, it must do so based upon current conditions. § 4(b) is unconstitutional and must be struck down. The other provisions of the Act remain. Reversed.

    Dissent.

    (Ginsburg, J.) The Act continued to function as intended. The covered jurisdictions subject to the preclearance requirement continued to submit multiple provisions that were not approved. Even without the same tests and provisions that led to the Act’s passage, there are second-generation barriers that involve vote dilution. When adopted with a discriminatory purpose, vote dilution is still a restriction on the right to vote. Congress created a record establishing current examples of discrimination before reauthorizing the Act in 2006. Congress must be given substantial deference in enforcing the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments. So long as the means used is rational, the Court may not question whether it is wise and substitute its judgment for Congress’s. The 2006 reauthorization satisfies the rational basis test. Preclearance was an effective and efficient way to accomplish the goal of preventing discrimination. Other provisions require litigation after the fact, a costly and lengthy mechanism for accomplishing the goal. Congress found that the formula from § 4(b) was still justified by current conditions in those jurisdictions. The reauthorization established a mechanism for a jurisdiction to bail out—upon demonstrating compliance for ten years. It also established a way to add jurisdictions to the coverage if necessary. 200 jurisdictions have successfully bailed out of preclearance requirements. To be facially unconstitutional, the Plaintiff must show that there is no set of circumstances under which the statute would be constitutional. Plaintiff here does not meet that burden, as current conditions in the state of Alabama show a continued need for federal supervision. The majority’s use of the principal of equal sovereignty is misplaced. It applies only to the terms upon which states are admitted to the Union. The majority would require statutes that apply unequally to be shown both appropriate for certain places and inappropriate for others. There is no precedent for such a double burden on defenders of congressional action.

    Concurrence.

    (Thomas, J.) § 5 of the Act is also unconstitutional and should be invalidated. As the majority notes, the burdens of the Act are no longer justified by current needs and so § 5 will soon be struck down. There is no need to wait to do so.

    Discussion.

    The Court’s decision extends only to the coverage formula in § 4(b) of the Act, but without the formula, § 5 has no effect. This decision, therefore, decimates the Act’s enforcement mechanism, leaving Congress with no effective means of combatting systemic disenfranchisement of black voters.


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