What Striking Down the Voting Rights Act Coverage Formula Really Means

BY Meena Ganesan  June 25, 2013 at 2:23 PM EST

The Supreme Court Tuesday struck down Section 4 of the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965, effectively ruling that the heart of the historical civil rights legislation was now unconstitutional, and that Congress would need to draft a new formula for deciding which states and localities warranted federal monitoring.

Moments after the Supreme Court decision, we spoke with NewsHour regular Marcia Coyle of the National Law Journal. Listen to audio from her phone call or read a transcript of our brief conversation below:

The court issued three decisions today, including one that has been closely watched by civil rights organizations.

It involved the challenge to the Voting Rights Act, specifically, the court today in another split decision voted 5-4 to strike down the coverage formula under the Voting Rights Act.

That’s a formula that determines which jurisdictions in the country are required to get preclearance, or pre-approval from the Justice Department or a federal court of any changes in their voting practices.

The opinion was written by Chief Justice Roberts, and he said the Court had warned Congress in 2009 that it saw some serious problems with the Voting Rights Act coverage formula. And, today, he said in 2009 they avoided reaching the constitutional issue but could not avoid it today.

Chief Justice Roberts said the act imposes current burdens on states and local jurisdictions, and those burdens have to be based on current conditions. The formula for determining who’s covered, he said, is 40 years old. and Congress did not update it when it voted in 2006 to reauthorize the Voting Rights Act.

Justice Ginsburg read the dissenters views from the bench. She said that section 5 basically, which is the preapproval provision in the voting rights act, cannot operate without the coverage formula.

So, in essence, what the court has done here is it has really handicapped the Justice Department and the federal court in overseeing voting practices that may discriminate in those jurisdictions that have been covered by the pre-approval provision in the Voting Rights Act

Justice Ginsburg said that Congress in 2006 made a very earnest examination of voting conditions in the states and local jurisdictions that are covered by the Voting Rights Act and felt that the Voting Rights Act still needed to operate in those jurisdictions. She pointed to the 15,000 pages in the congressional record and numerous witnesses that Congress heard from. She said the Voting Rights Act is designed to fight second-generation barriers to voting, and she said the court really departed from the promise that Martin Luther King gave when he lead the March on Selma, that “the arc of time bends toward justice.”

So that’s the major decision out of the court today. The Chief Justice indicated that tomorrow would be the final day of the term. We expect decisions on the two same sex marriage challenges.

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