by Gilda R. Daniels, Associate Professor of Law, University of Baltimore School of Law. Daniels is a former Deputy Chief in the Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division, Voting Section. For more on Daniels' work, visit her website.
Four years ago, the Supreme Court dared Congress to change the coverage formula that determined which jurisdictions would be subject to federal oversight of voting changes under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. Congress did nothing. In the recent Shelby County decision, the Court indicated that it was forced to act stating, “[Congress’s] failure to act leaves us today with no choice but to declare §4(b) unconstitutional.” Further, the Court seems to deny its culpability, positing that the “nation has changed” and the formula does not address “current conditions.” While it acknowledges that the Voting Rights Act is responsible in large part for increasing voter registration for black voters and the number of minority elected officials, it essentially says that enough is enough. It gives the impression that it views Section 5 as medicine for a disease that is no longer at epidemic proportions, but refuses to allow a targeted and effective remedy to currently infected areas. Thus, a majority of the justices, without doubt, believe that the “current conditions” of fewer disparities in voter registration, for example, merit the removal of all life sustaining legislation.
We’ve seen this before. In 1883, the Supreme Court found that the Civil Rights Act of 1875, which sought to make former slaves full and equal citizens, was unconstitutional. This marked a turning point in becoming a nation where all men were truly created equal. In less than 20 years after passage of the Fifteenth Amendment, the last African American left Congress after states implemented barriers to the franchise, such as literacy tests, grandfather clauses, and felon disenfranchisement laws. It would take seventy years before an African American would return to Congress from a former Confederate state and almost a century from the passage of the Fifteenth Amendment before Congress would provide the nation with tools to combat massive and violent disenfranchisement in passing the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
Have conditions changed since 1965? Absolutely! No more segregated lunch counters, water fountains, Bull Connor in the courthouse door. Does discrimination in voting continue to exist? Absolutely! The Court admits that fact, but decides that a state’s right to be treated equally instead of a citizen’s right to equal treatment is supreme.