As with every June, the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) delivered a plethora of decisions from its October session. The two biggest seemed to have the same theme: State’s rights, and seemed to at least be consistent. I say seemed to have, because one did, and the other sounded like it, until you actually read the decision. Since both decisions, one on the Voting Rights Act and the other the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), cover a lot of ground, this is part 1 of a 2 part series. Up first, VRA.
There were two different views of governing in this decision, States rights and equal sovereignty as found in the 10th Amendment, and the Constitution and federal law being the “supreme Law of the land.” U.S. Const., Art. VI, cl. 2. It is an age old battle, one that caused a civil war some 150 years ago. States are sovereign, and most of the laws they make are within their purview, unless they directly contradict the Constitution and in some cases Federal law. Remember, the 10th Amendment says “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.”
The VRA was passed by Congress in 1965 to address issues of voting discrimination in the US. Voting rights for all citizens is protected under the 15th Amendment. When the VRA was signed into law, many States had requirements such as passing voting tests and other methods to prevent people of color from being able to vote. The VRA was Congress’ solution but their solution violated the 10th Amendment. What’s worse, they kept it in place using 1965 statistics, instead of allowing it to evolve as the problem became less pervasive and in some places statistically non-existent.
Section 2 of VRA was enacted to forbid any “standard, practice, or procedure … imposed or applied … to deny or abridge the right of any citizen of the United States to vote on account of race or color.” Section 4 banned any tests or devices, such as literacy tests or good moral character requirements. This section, and most of the VRA , was intended to be temporary, for a period of no more than 5 years. That was 48 years ago. The VRA wasn’t temporary, and in fact became more stringent in how it dealt with how States could set up election districts, etc. with each new Amendment.
Shelby County, Alabama decided to fight VRA. The County contended that the formulas that were being used to justify VRA were no longer valid and were unconstitutional. VRA supporters contended that the ends justify the means. I say that the Constitution has no room for the ends justifying the means, especially when it punishes one state over another, regardless of any steps forward that were made. The Court agreed with Alabama and me.
SCOTUS made its decision based on the fact that the VRA didn’t change when the circumstances that made it necessary did. They found that the formula used to determine the need for VRA was incredibly outdated, and that “Congress must ensure that the legislation it passes to remedy that problem speaks to current conditions.”