Do Civil Rights Laws Become Invalid If They Work?

February 26, 2013
Guest Post

by Gabriel J. Chin, Professor of Law, University of California Davis School of Law. This post is part of an ACSblog symposium on Shelby County v. Holder.

Tomorrow, the Court will hear argument in Shelby County, Alabama v. Holder, which raises the question of the continuing validity of the preclearance requirement of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act.

Under Section 5, electoral changes in covered jurisdictions are suspended until the Attorney General or the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia preclears them by determining that they have neither the purpose nor effect of denying or abridging the right to vote on account of race or color.  The specific issue is whether circumstances in the covered jurisdictions have changed so dramatically that Section 5 is no longer warranted; the Court suggested as much in their 2009 decision in Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District Number One (NAMUDNO) v. Holder

I strongly disagree, and believe that a facial challenge is improper because Section 5 is clearly permissible in federal elections.  As important and ominous as Shelby County is, there is a larger question about the Court’s reasoning which has the potential to undermine many other laws and constitutional principles protecting civil rights. 

The Court’s logic in NAMUDNO seems to be this: There was a problem with discrimination against racial minorities at the ballot box, particularly in certain jurisdictions.  Section 5 and other parts of the Voting Rights Act largely fixed that problem.  Because covered jurisdictions are no longer disproportionately proposing electoral rules or districting maps that have the purpose or effect of disadvantaging minority voters, Section 5 may have outlived its usefulness.  Laws must be necessary and proper to solve problems, not non-problems, or former problems. (Many of these facts are doubtful, but I am concerned here primarily with the Court’s logic).

The Court has made similar arguments with respect to the exclusionary rule, which requires the suppression of evidence seized in violation of the Constitution.  The Court noted that before the exclusionary rule, there was no other realistic alternative to judicial suppression. But now that there is judicial suppression, police agencies train their officers not to illegally search and seize.  Therefore, it is implied, perhaps it is time for the exclusionary rule to go, because the police themselves are training their officers to comply with the law.

The flaw in these arguments is that they do not account for the effects of the laws themselves.  If Section 5 works, the Court should expect it to deter improper electoral changes because they will not be precleared, and thus will never go into effect.  Similarly, an effective exclusionary rule should change police training and policy because police leaders have an interest in teaching officers to develop admissible, as opposed to inadmissible, evidence.  Only if legislators and police are invulnerable to incentives and oblivious to outcomes would they stubbornly adhere to tactics long after they are penalized under law.  

That measures designed to bring about change achieve that change says nothing about whether those measures are no longer necessary.  If burglaries decline for ten years after homeowners install good door and window locks, that does not imply that locks have become superfluous.  If speeds on a road decrease after a speed limit is set and posted, that does not imply that speeds will remain low even if the speed limit were removed.  If laws do not change behavior, there is little point in having them.  If laws do change behavior, that does not necessarily mean that the underlying motivations and values which led to the behavior no longer exist.

Accordingly, the question is not simply whether the law worked, or created incentives to which the lawbreakers responded.  One question is whether the law (or other social forces) has changed public attitudes or conditions on the ground to such a degree that the law is unnecessary.  Another is who gets to decide.     

Section 5’s validity might turn on a prediction about politics -- will jurisdictions which once discriminated leap at the first chance to discriminate again, or will they welcome minority voters with open arms?  The continued existence of racially polarized voting and the political utility to Republicans of suppressing the minority vote -- whether out of malice or simple recognition of how they are likely to cast their ballots -- precludes any confident conclusion that eliminating Section 5 would not revive the practices Section 5 was intended to suppress.  But even if the point is debatable, Congress is in a far better position than is the Court to determine facts, political realities and public attitudes relevant to a prediction about what would happen if Section 5 disappeared.   For this reason, and many others, the Court should defer to the political judgments of the political branches and leave Section 5 as it is.