By Bill Rankinfirstname.lastname@example.org and Aaron Gould Sheininemail@example.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.