Supreme Court issues narrow Voting Rights Act ruling

By Bill Rankin/brankin@ajc.com and Aaron Gould Sheinin/asheinin@ajc.com

The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday ruled narrowly in a closely watched case that sought to overturn a key provision of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

The high court, in a decision written by Chief Justice John Roberts, allowed a small utility district in Austin, Texas, to be exempted from having to seek U.S. Justice Department approval before instituting changes in voting procedures. The 8-1 ruling avoided deciding the weighty question as to whether Section 5 of the act is constitutional.

“Our usual practice is to avoid the unnecessary resolution of constitutional questions,” Roberts wrote. “We agree that the district is eligible under the act to seek bailout.”

Gov. Sonny Perdue, in a legal brief filed in the case, had asked the high court to overturn the Section 5 preclearance provision. Georgia Secretary of State Karen Handel, who oversees elections in the state, had also called for the Court to overturn Section 5.

A spokesman for Handel said Monday they were reviewing the decision. Likewise, a spokeswoman for U.S. Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), an icon of the Civil Rights Movement who attended the oral arguments on the case, said he would issue a statement later today.

Laughlin McDonald, head of the ACLU’s voting rights project in Atlanta, expressed relief.

“Section 5 survived the latest constitutional challenge and it’s still in force and effect in the covered jurisdictions and that’s certainly a positive result,” McDonald said.

Section 5 requires Georgia, eight other states and parts of seven others with a history of discrimination to obtain federal permission before making changes to voting procedures. Under the provision, a special unit of the Justice Department must review all such changes, from moving a polling site a few blocks down the street to remapping a state’s congressional districts.

Roberts noted that since 1982, only 17 jurisdictions – out of the more than 12,000 political subdivisions in the covered states – had successfully been allowed to bail out of the act. It is unlikely Congress intended the provision to have such limited effect, Roberts wrote.

The court’s avoidance of the larger issue explains the consensus among justices in the case rendered Monday, where they otherwise likely would have split along conservative-liberal lines.

Justice Clarence Thomas, alone among this colleagues, said he would have resolved the case and held that the Section 5 provision is unconstitutional.

“The violence, intimidation and subterfuge that led Congress to pass Section 5 and this court to uphold it no longer remains,” Thomas said.

Thomas, a native of Pin Point, near Savannah, wrote that he agreed with Perdue, although he misspelled the governor’s name (he wrote “Purdue”).

McDonald cited a recent Georgia case as “Exhibit No. 1″ in support of the continued need for Section 5.

In 2007, Handel created a system using a state database to verify voters’ identity and citizenship to meet the requirements of the Help America Vote Act.

The Justice Department’s civil rights division has rejected the verification procedure, finding it to be “seriously flawed.” The system mistakenly flagged thousands of eligible Georgia voters, a disproportionate share of whom were minority voters, Loretta King, acting assistant attorney general, told the state on May 29.

Handel called this decision a political one, noting the Obama administration oversees the Justice Department. (The department’s inquiry began under the Bush administration last fall.)

This marked the 172nd time the Justice Department has objected to a change in a Georgia voting procedure since the 1965 act.

Opponents have sought to overturn Section 5 almost since it was enacted. In 1966, a challenge by the state of South Carolina was turned back by the Supreme Court in an 8-1 decision.

34 comments Add your comment

AH

June 22nd, 2009
10:57 am

It is only a matter of time till this Act is done away with and the preclearance process is ended. The question really should be how will we act once it is gone? What will change here in Georgia? Lets not spam this board with comments on racism and how backwards Georgia is but on what we want for the state once the Act is gone.

SS

June 22nd, 2009
11:04 am

When its easier to vote than rent a movie from Blockbuster, something needed to be done to stop rampant voter fraud

Thomas

June 22nd, 2009
11:10 am

I agree AH lets not throw insults toward one another on this board. Now to the story, I agree one day it will get overturned and I know things aren’t where they should be in some areas of society but I have faith in Georgia and other states that are now challenging this Act that further social progress will be made and that these provisions someday soon won’t be needed.

DougH

June 22nd, 2009
11:13 am

Thank God we don’t have justices of any race that compare to Clarence Thomas. He is the worst of case for promoting someone to the Supreme Court that has so little experience but worst yet, who has an immature judicial temperament. Thomas is a Supreme Court Justice with a poor since of justice. If all law is black and white (no pun intended) what is the use of a judge let alone 7 of them.

His dissent on the Section 5 decision is simplistic and naive. But then again, what would you expect from a justice who says he has already made up his mind before a ever hears argument. Thomas never asks questions during court argument because he already knows everything.

Chester Hicks

June 22nd, 2009
11:16 am

Someday discrimination will be reduced to a level where afirmative action, voting rights laws, etc will no longer be needed. We’re not there yet.

CoastalDawg

June 22nd, 2009
11:20 am

Even a casual observer of our constitution would know that this act is completely discriminatory and unconstitutional because it treats several states differently from all the rest under the law. That section cannot stand – Georgia has a voted ID law on its books, and has fought all the way through the courts to have it stand. If an individual is a citizen and has not lost voting rights due to felony criminal conviction, he/she can register and vote. The simple act of proving WHO an individual is at the poll shouldn’t be a problem to anyone but to continually have the justice department of the federal government intrude upon the rights of the state is unacceptable. There are counties in Georgia that are split in their representative in the house of representatives in congress; that should NEVER be. Chatham County on the coast has one Democrat and one Republican Congressman – does that make sense to anyone that the people in that county are divided in that way? NO county should be split in its representation. It’s time to move on way past the restrictive laws that were but are not NOW in effect and let states rights rule again. We’ve seen what an awful mess things are on the federal level so let’s try it the way that our forefathers intended.

CoastalDawg

June 22nd, 2009
11:21 am

Sorry should have read that Georgia has a VOTER ID law on the books.

Brian

June 22nd, 2009
11:23 am

Its time to throw out section 5, last time I checked reconstruction was done.

CovingtonBob

June 22nd, 2009
11:24 am

Doug, maybe, just maybe Judge Thomas had already heard of this case before it hit the court. I just might be that he sees the discriminatory way it is being used against the people of the southern states and not at all toward any other state. I think the best solution is to apply the rule to ALL states, because things just work better when we all follow the same rules.

AH

June 22nd, 2009
11:26 am

We have come to a point where affirmative action, voter rights act, etc… are recognized as being wrong. They were wrong when they were created but that was to stop and even greater wrong. Now that we have lessened the original problem to a point where the cure is now a greater evil that the original problem, what do we do?

David Johnson

June 22nd, 2009
11:32 am

Blanket statements about rampant voter fraud is irresponsible. I suggest you check your facts. You are entitled to your opinions but not to your facts.

Only the methodology of Georgia’s leaders effort to disenfranchise non-white citizens has changed. The voter Id law which work disproportionally against those citizens, justified by the false spectre of voter fraud, is but one example of this continued bias.

Acme

June 22nd, 2009
11:50 am

Funny how the Fed’s, Democrat’s, Al Sharkton and the ACLU won’t go after ACORN, oops, sorry, ACORN is fair and trusting oganization..

KenFromCalifornia

June 22nd, 2009
11:52 am

clarence thomas’ quote is accurate, but he ignores the reason why. those acts of violence and intimidation toward don’t exist. But that is because this law (section 5) is in place to prevent it.

and with apologies to justice thomas’ opinion, it wasn’t the local politicians who were doing the violence. they instead enacted strange conditions and policies to effectively bar non-white voters (and candidates, and issues) being a part of things. burning down a black family’s house (or lynching them) for daring to go to the ballot box was always against the law, and local politicians dared not have a hand in that level of intimidation. but the local politicians were no less effective when constantly changing the election rules to maintain power.

these days, there is enough gerrymandering going on all over the country that bring even legal changes into question. early voting in last november’s election brought out thousands of people…how many of them were motivated to do so by the fear that some shenanigans might take place?

whether that fear was rational or not, it is born out of documented fact that officially-sanctioned “funny stuff” occurred quite frequently just 40 years ago. and it was hard for such to happen with cnn showing all those long lines every night for 3 weeks, no doubt.

all this law does is add a layer or two (or 10) of approval for any proposed changes. such scrutiny isn’t onerous, and no local politicians should feel threatened by it. this law was created to make local politicians get with modern times, and to help all citizens claim their right to participate in voting without fear.

the reasons that law was put into effect were going on for over 100 years. things are better because of such laws, but never underestimate the motivation of people to sink to a law’s lowest requirement (instead of rising up to high ideals). look at what happened to our national banking system when the laws were weakened (or ignored), how we depended on them to “do right for all” and they instead decided to do right for their own self-interests.

if poll taxes and literacy tests were ruled legal once more, how soon do you think certain local jurisdictions would implement them? or could they be trusted to hold to a higher ideal and continue to ban these rules?

would you want to take that chance?

JawjunY'all

June 22nd, 2009
11:52 am

Yes. There is still racial discrimination in the South (both ways), but Section 5 is divisive and only highlights and aggrivates rather than resolves the issues.

Absurd Hero

June 22nd, 2009
12:12 pm

Acme, ACORN registers voters. It doesn’t dictate who gets to vote and where.

Never Let Your Foot Off the Rebel's Necks

June 22nd, 2009
12:18 pm

Hey Brian,
If “reconstruction is done”, why the beatings & intimidation to keep blacks from voting in the 1960s (not 1860s) south?

Never Let Your Foot Off the Rebel's Necks

June 22nd, 2009
12:18 pm

8-1 is a HUGE margin!

LOL

June 22nd, 2009
12:21 pm

Well stated, Ken.

Turd Ferguson

June 22nd, 2009
12:32 pm

The racism exhibited today is by precisely those that this silly law and the outdated affirmative action was designed to assist.

Racism is more rampant than ever only now its more prevalent by the gangsta’s, rappa’s and thugs.

Prime Example

June 22nd, 2009
12:49 pm

I really really hate to hear anyone use the Uncle Tom label, but if it is ever appropriate to use the term, Clarence Thomas must be a prime example.

What an embarrassment to all minorities, not just African-Americans. Justice Thomas is clearly a man that is full of hate and self-loathing. He is shunned by his race and responds in a way to inflict as much damage to them as he possibly can, whenever he can.

May the Lord have mercy on his dark dark soul.(no pun intended)

mah

June 22nd, 2009
12:54 pm

Todd Ferguson said that the racism today is exhibited by those whom the law was designed to assist. Actually, the law was designed to protect the rights of the disenfranchised.

And, if he believes that racism is now exhibited more by those for whom he uses code words, may I ask what kind of behavior he thinks recently was exhibited by James von Brunn?

williebkind

June 22nd, 2009
12:58 pm

well it will be 25 more years before it can be changed. So much for taxation with representattion…its kinda like hate crimes….you can get more punishment for murder if you hate the person….lol…move over socialist China

The Real DEal

June 22nd, 2009
12:59 pm

Racism is more rampant than ever only now its more prevalent by the gangsta’s, rappa’s and thugs.

FALSE!

The real thugs and gangstas wear expensive suits and work in places such as Wall Street and K Street. The real thugs have sucked the economy of this country dry much more than any drug dealer or Welfare Queen could ever do.

Let’s get real. There is a certain segment of the population that remains over represented in every thing but basketball and other entertainment. That is not natural, it is by deliberate design. At every time that segment had a choice to do the right thing, they failed to do so, with one small exception during the 1960’s and only then because they didn’t want the bad PR while fighting the “evil” communists!

Whether it was the founding of the country, the Civil War, Reconstruction, or post Civil Rights era, that segment has continued to resist true equality. That is why we have to have programs to address the built-in advantages of the present system.

Enjoy it while you can though. The country, like the world, is growing darker..not lighter. There will be no race, no segment that will be large enough to alone dictate how things will go

FRANKLIN G. MIRASOLA

June 22nd, 2009
1:00 pm

Based on more than 15 years experience representing my employer in numerous (over 25) federal reviews of compliance with Executive Order 11256 (Affirmative Action), I believe unequivocally that law was and continues to be necessary.

I am equally convinced there is a continuing need for DOJ oversight of the voting laws in the state of Georgia which has clearly politicized the voting process in an attempt to affect the outcomes.

I am relieved the federal statute was allowed to stand.

FGM

jAMES d tYLER

June 22nd, 2009
1:26 pm

I spent 6 1/2 years in the Army defending (Among other things) the Right to Vote – SCOTUS is wrong to deny any voter their rights! Were was the Right Wing SCOTUS when my vote was overturned in 2000?
I am offended – Obama, change this court, please!

CovingtonBob

June 22nd, 2009
1:29 pm

As I stated, the law should be fairly applied across all states, not just the southern ones. That in itself is being discriminatory. Is it ever right to discriminate in any way? [That was a rhetorical question, but in case you didn't get it, the answer is "Yes"]
But… when it comes to the complaining of any person that their rights were being infringed upon when the state was asking for some valid identification to cast a vote is STUPID! When the state offers to provide a photo I.D. to the voter, the only thing in the way was the voter’s laziness. And did you read the list of 17 different things that could have been used as an I.D.? What was the fuss about?

The Real Politico

June 22nd, 2009
1:54 pm

Either those who want the law to apply to all states are either ignorant of history or being disingenuous. All states were not using litracy tests to deny the vote. All states were not intimidating potential voters with death. We just had the anniversary of three civil rights workers killed in Mississippi for wanting to register African-American voters. They were killed for only that along with many others.

If you say know we are all past that the recent Georgia case ruling showing that legally registered voters were denied access in the last election show otherwise. This when no case of voter fraud has ever being proved in the state.

We know what this is about. It’s about trying to disenfranchise voters that are different. Get over it!

AH

June 22nd, 2009
1:56 pm

Point of clarification for jAMES d tYLER – there is no federal right to vote. Don’t feel bad, so very few people actually understand that.

williebkind

June 22nd, 2009
2:07 pm

FRANKLIN G. MIRASOLA: You really say affimative action is necessary to promote economic empowerment than equality. I will always be prejudice against YOU!

The Real Politico

June 22nd, 2009
4:16 pm

AH, Don’t see in James Tyler’s piece anything about a federal right to vote. Only that his rights had been abridged. Something all true Americans should be angry about.
I did say “true Americans” though.

The Real Politico

June 22nd, 2009
4:19 pm

williebkind. There is nothing in the piece by Franklin about about affirmative action with regard to voting. That was his job, and experience.
Of course I do get your prejudice. We all do.

zew

June 22nd, 2009
6:57 pm

It’s already been proven in other instances that sought to right injustices that were long practiced, once those changes are in place, individuals resort to going back to their old misguided habits of exclusion.

Outhouse

June 22nd, 2009
9:26 pm

The law either needs to be applied THROUGHOUT the United States, in every nook and cranny, or done away with!

mwc

June 22nd, 2009
10:19 pm

“Delete section 5 if you will but bring the “Hate Crimes Prevention Act” to the floor of Congress and make it a Law beforehand; or their will surely be more James Byrd Jr. cases on your hands, Justice Thomas (anyway they think you’re stupid)”.
And let the public sector (including the pooling place)reflect the demographics of the community it serves and that will solve your problem. Keep all that DRAMA in your neighborhood and leave other peoples neighborhoods alone, OVERSTAND????????