WASHINGTON — The U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday gutted a key part of the landmark Voting Rights Act, passed in 1965 to end a century of attempts by former slave-holding states to block blacks from voting.
In a 5-4 ruling with the court's conservatives in the majority, the justices ruled that Congress had used obsolete reasoning in continuing to force nine states, mainly in the South, to get federal approval for voting rule changes affecting blacks and other minorities.
The ruling comes just four months after New Hampshire was removed from the list of affected states in a March 1 decision by a three-judge panel in Washington, D.C., acting on the recommendation of the U.S. Attorney General.
Opponents of the Voting Rights Act had intervened to oppose the removal of New Hampshire from the list, fearing that Attorney General Eric Holder, in defending the act, would make the case that a proper remedy could be found on a state-by-state basis.
New Hampshire Secretary of State William Gardner said after the Supreme Court ruling on Tuesday that New Hampshire should have never been included in the list of states under federal supervision for election law, and that the state never submitted its election law changes to the U.S. Department of Justice for approval since the state was added to the list in 1970.
"Over the years we did not pre-clear our laws, and I think they (the Justice Department) never did anything about it because they did not want to get into it," Gardner said. "It was an embarrassment that they had New Hampshire on the list if you look at the details. There was a logical explanation for every town they cited with low turnout that had nothing to do with race."
The Supreme Court's Tuesday ruling in favor of officials from Shelby County, Ala., declared invalid a section of the law that set a formula to determine which states need federal approval to change voting laws. President Barack Obama quickly called on Congress to pass a new law to ensure equal access to voting polls for all.
"I am deeply disappointed with the Supreme Court's decision today," Obama, the first black U.S. president, said in a statement, adding that the court's action "upsets decades of well-established practices that help make sure voting is fair, especially in places where voting discrimination has been historically prevalent."
Gardner said if a new Voting Rights Act is passed to comply with the Supreme Court's decision, he doubts New Hampshire will again be ensnared in the law.
"If it's based on voter turnout in the presidential election years, we'll be fine," he said. "We had the third highest turnout in the country last November and have been at the top for turnout over the last several elections."
Burden on Congress
Tuesday's Supreme Court ruling upended important legal protections for minority voters that were a key achievement of the U.S. civil rights movement of the 1960s led by Martin Luther King Jr. The decision also placed the burden on Congress to pass any new voting rights law like the one sought by Obama.
Writing for the majority, conservative Chief Justice John Roberts said the coverage formula that Congress used when it most recently re-authorized the law in 2006 should have been updated.
"Congress did not use the record it compiled to shape a coverage formula grounded in current conditions," he wrote. "It instead re-enacted a formula based on 40-year-old facts having no logical relationship to the present day."
The coverage formula therefore violates the sovereignty of the affected states under the U.S. Constitution, Roberts said.
One of the most closely watched disputes of the court's current term, the case centers on the civil rights-era law that broadly prohibited poll taxes, literacy tests and other measures that prevented blacks from voting. In the 1960s, such laws existed throughout the country but were more prevalent in the South with its legacy of slavery.
New Hampshire had a literacy test on the books back in the 1960s that attracted the attention of federal authorities, along with low turnout in 10 towns, most of which Gardner attributed to students who were counted in the population but, "didn't vote back then like they do today."
The Shelby County challengers said the kind of systematic obstruction that once warranted treating the South differently is over and the screening provision should be struck down.
The Obama administration, backed by civil rights advocates, had argued that the provision was still needed to deter voter discrimination.
The ruling is a heavy blow for civil rights advocates, who believe the loss of that section of the law could lead to an increase in attempts to deter minorities from voting. They said 31 proposals made by covered jurisdictions to modify election laws had been blocked by the Justice Department under Section 5 of the law since the measure was re-enacted in 2006.
Sherrilyn Ifill, president of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, accused the Supreme Court of leaving "millions of minority voters without the mechanism that has allowed them to stop voting discrimination before it occurs."
Senate action promised
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, on Tuesday pledged to move quickly to try to restore voting rights protections after the ruling.
"I intend to take immediate action to ensure that we will have a strong and reconstituted Voting Rights Act that protects against racial discrimination in voting," Leahy said.
The court, split on ideological lines, did not go so far as to strike down the core Section 5 of the law, known as the preclearance provision, which requires certain states to get approval from the Justice Department or a federal court before making election-law changes.
But the majority did invalidate Section 4b of the act, which set the formula for states covered by Section 5 and was based on historic patterns of discrimination against minority voters.
Although Section 5 is technically left intact, it is effectively nullified, at least for the near future, as Congress would now need to pass new legislation setting a new formula before it can be applied again.
In her dissenting opinion on behalf of the liberal wing of the court, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said Section 5 is now "immobilized."
Ginsburg read a summary of her dissent from the bench, quoting the late civil rights leader King. In her written opinion, she accused Roberts of downplaying the authority Congress has under amendments to the Constitution that were enacted after the U.S. Civil War when slavery was first prohibited, but concerns remained about how former Confederate states would treat black people.
Congress approached the 2006 re-authorization "with great care and seriousness," she added. "The same cannot be said of the court's opinion today."
Section 5 of the law required certain states, mainly in the South, to show that any proposed election-law change does not discriminate against black, Latino or other minority voters.
The nine fully covered states were Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia.
Part of law remains intact
Democratic Senator Charles Schumer of New York said of the ruling: "Make no mistake about it, this is a back door way to gut the Voting Rights Act. As long as Republicans have a majority in the House and Democrats don't have 60 votes in the Senate, there will be no preclearance."
"It is confounding that after decades of progress on voting rights, which have become part of the American fabric, the Supreme Court would tear it asunder," Schumer added.
Tuesday's ruling leaves intact Section 2 of the act, which broadly prohibits intentional discrimination in the voting arena. The Justice Department will still be able to intervene to enforce the law in that respect.
The issue of voting rights remains prominent in the United States. During the 2012 presidential election campaign, judges nationwide heard challenges to new voter identification laws and redrawn voting districts. The most restrictive moves ended up being blocked before the November elections.
Just last week, the Supreme Court struck down an Arizona state law that required people registering to vote in federal elections to show proof of citizenship, a victory for activists who said it discouraged Native Americans and Latinos from voting.
Democrats say that and similar measures, championed by Republicans at the state level, were intended to make it more difficult for certain voters who tend to vote Democratic to cast ballots.