WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court struck down a key provision of the Voting Rights Act today, ruling that the formula used to enforce the nearly 50-year-old civil rights law needs to be updated.
The 5-4 decision ruled that the formula used by the government to determine which states are required to get federal permission before they make any changes to voting laws is unconstitutional. The court issued no ruling on section 5 of the act, which requires states with a history of voter discrimination to get clearance from the federal government before changing its voting laws.
The ruling effectively puts the issue back in the hands of lawmakers to create a new, updated formula.
"We issue no holding on section 5 itself, only on the coverage formula. Congress may draft another formula based on current conditions," said Chief Justice John Roberts, reading the court's opinion. "Our country has changed, and while any racial discrimination in voting is too much, Congress must ensure that the legislation it passes to remedy that problem speaks to current conditions."
The court's opinion was signed by the conservative justices Roberts, Antonin Scalia, Anthony M. Kennedy, Clarence Thomas, and Samuel Alito.
The Voting Rights Act was signed into law in 1965 by President Lyndon Johnson and aimed at discriminatory voting practices such as literacy tests once used by some Southern states. It was passed after "Bloody Sunday," when protestors urging voting rights protections were beaten while trying to march from Selma to Montgomery, Ala.
At issue in the case was whether Congress was right in 2006 to reauthorize the expiring sections of the law for 25 more years.
Section 4 and Section 5 of the law were under scrutiny by the court.
Section 5 of the law -- the preclearance section -- requires states, mostly in the South, with a history of discrimination to get any changes in voting rules pre-cleared by federal officials in Washington, D.C.
Section 4 contains the coverage formula used to decide which jurisdictions get covered.
Lawyers for Shelby County, Ala., a covered jurisdiction under the VRA, argued that Congress was wrong in 2006 to reauthorize extend the provision. They argued that "things have changed in the South" and that the mostly Southern states covered by Section 5 should no longer be subject to a law that exacts a "heavy, unprecedented federalism cost" absent a widespread and persisting pattern of constitutional violations.
The jurisdictions covered under the law include Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia as well as portions of California, Florida, Michigan, New York, North Carolina and South Dakota.
In reauthorizing the Act in 2006, Congress held 21 hearings, heard testimony from witnesses and amassed more than 15,000 pages of evidence. The vote was 98-0 in the Senate and 390-33 in the House.
In court briefs, Solicitor General Donald B. Verrilli Jr. argued that "Congress made the considered judgment in 2006 (as it had in 1970, 1975 and 1982) that covered jurisdictions continue to resist minority voters' equal enjoyment of the right to participate in the political process."
A lower court upheld Section 5, ruling that Congress, "after assembling and analyzing an extensive record, made its decision: Section 5's work is not yet done."
The decision was penned by Roberts, who as a young lawyer in the Reagan Justice Department argued to limit the reach of the law. In 2009, the Supreme Court heard a related case and Roberts warned that some members of the court had "serious misgivings" about the constitutionality of Section 5.