by Jamal Watson
National civil rights advocates are expressing dismay in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to strike down Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act that designated that parts of the country must have changes to their voting laws cleared by the federal government or the federal courts.
In a 5-4 ruling authored by Chief Justice John Roberts, the mostly conservative wing of the high court ruled in Shelby County v. Holder that “things have changed dramatically” in the South in the nearly 50 years since the Voting Rights Act was signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1965.
But civil rights advocates said that the court’s decision was a major step backward, particularly in light of voter suppression efforts in last year’s 2012 presidential election that aggressively targeted minority and college students.
“This is a devastating blow to Americans, particularly African-Americans, who are now at the mercy of state governments,” says the Reverend Al Sharpton, president of National Action Network and an MSNBC host. “Given last year’s attempts by states to change voting rules, it is absurd to say that we do not need these protections.”
Roberts, along with Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy, Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito, faulted Congress for failing to update the formula of the act when it last expired.
“Congress could have updated the coverage formula at that time, but did not do so,” wrote Roberts. “Its failure to act leaves us today with no choice but to declare (Section 4) unconstitutional. The formula in that section can no longer be used as a basis for subjecting jurisdictions to preclearance.”
Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan disagreed.
“The sad irony of today’s decision lies in its utter failure to grasp why the Voting Rights Act has proven effective,” Ginsburg wrote in the minority opinion. “The Court appears to believe that the Voting Right (sic) Act’s success in eliminating the specific devices extant in 1965 means that preclearance is no longer needed.”
In several Southern and battleground states, college students reported that they were denied access to the polls last year when they failed to present state-issued voter identification.
“This voting-rights rip-up is not unlike what is happening with the affirmative-action remedy,” said Amos Jones, a law professor at Campbell University in Raleigh, N.C., and a civil-rights attorney. “What we are seeing is a gradual chipping away by the Court of the bipartisan legislative protections that fostered substantial progress for nearly 50 years.
“Now, all of a sudden, these election safeguards are unconstitutional; they’re unconstitutional in light of the fact that they’ve succeeded in the opinion of the narrowest majority of justices. That reasoning smells fishy.”
President Obama expressed grave disappointment with the court’s decision and immediately called on Congress to pass new legislation aimed at protecting the rights of all voters at the ballot box.
“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,” says Obama. “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.”
Although some groups have called for a constitutional amendment, legal experts say that is unlikely, particularly with a divided Congress.
Rep. John Lewis, who was present when President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into law in 1965, said in an interview that he was “shocked, dismayed and disappointed” by the court’s action. “What the Supreme Court did was to put a dagger in the heart of the Voting Rights Act of 1965,” says Lewis, who was a student leader in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in the 1960s. “This act helped liberate not just a people, but a nation.”
Sharpton said that the National Action to Realize the Dream March that is scheduled to take place in Washington, D.C. on August 24, 2013 to commemorate the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington will now be centered around the protection and restoring of voter protection.
“This ruling has, in effect, revoked one of Dr. King’s greatest achievements; the teeth of the Voting Rights Act,” says Sharpton.