Shelby County v. Holder: Supreme Court Case, Arguments, Impact

The constitutionality of Sections 4 and 5 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965

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In Shelby County v. Holder (2013), a landmark case, the Supreme Court struck down Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which provided the federal government with a formula to determine which voting jurisdictions should be subject to oversight when passing electoral laws.

Fast Facts: Shelby County v. Holder

  • Case Argued: February 27, 2013
  • Decision Issued: June 25, 2013
  • Petitioner: Shelby County, Alabama
  • Respondent: Attorney General Eric Holder Jr.
  • Key Questions: Are federal requirements within the Voting Rights Act of 1965 constitutional?
  • Majority Decision: Justices Roberts, Scalia, Kennedy, Thomas, and Alito
  • Dissenting: Justices Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan
  • Ruling: The Supreme Court ruled that Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was unconstitutional.

Facts of the Case

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was designed to prevent discrimination against black Americans by enforcing the Fifteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. In 2013 the court looked to determine the constitutionality of two of the Act’s provisions, close to 50 years after its passage.

  • Section 5 required certain states with a history of discrimination to gain federal approval before making changes to their voting laws or practices. Federal approval meant that authorities in Washington D.C., the Attorney General, or a court of three judges had to review possible amendments to state electoral laws. 
  • Section 4 helped the federal government decide which states had a history of discrimination. Section 4 looked at jurisdictions with less than 50% voter turnout and electoral laws that allowed the use of tests to determine voter eligibility.

The original act was set to expire after five years, but Congress amended and reauthorized it several times. Congress re-authorized the Act with a 1975 version of Section 4 for 25 years in 1982 and again in 2006. In 2010 officials in Shelby County, Alabama, filed suit in district court, arguing that Sections 4 and 5 were unconstitutional.

Arguments

An attorney representing Shelby County offered evidence to show that the Voting Rights Act had helped close gaps in voter registration and turnout rates. "Blatantly discriminatory evasions" of the law were rare, he added, and minority candidates held offices at higher rates than ever before. Voter eligibility tests had not been used for close to 40 years. The attorney said that the act created "extraordinary federalism and cost burdens to preclearance." In light of the new evidence, the attorney argued that the act could no longer be justified.

The solicitor general argued on behalf of the government, defending the constitutionality of the Voting Rights Act. It was a form of deterrence, encouraging states to maintain fair electoral laws because unfair additions might be rejected, he argued. Congress reauthorized the legislation in 2006 as a continuing means of deterrence, acknowledging that disparity in voter registration had decreased. The solicitor general also argued that the Supreme Court had previously upheld the Voting Rights Act in three separate cases.

Constitutional Questions

Can the federal government use formulas to determine which states require oversight if they want to make changes to electoral laws? How often do those formulas have to be updated to remain constitutional?

Majority Opinion

Chief Justice John Roberts delivered the 5-4 decision, which found in favor of Shelby County and invalidated parts of the Voting Rights Act. At issue was Congress' decision to reuse language and formulas that had not been updated since 1975. When the legislation originally passed it was a “dramatic” and “extraordinary" departure from the tradition of federalism, Justice Roberts wrote. It gave the federal government unprecedented power over state legislatures with a specific goal preventing state and local governments from using voting laws to discriminate. It had accomplished its goal, Justice Roberts wrote on behalf of the majority. The legislation was successful at decreasing voter discrimination. As time went on, Congress should have acknowledged the impact of the legislation and slowly altered it to account for that change. The Act "imposes current burdens and must be justified by current needs," Justice Roberts wrote. Congress was using 50-year-old guidelines and formulas to maintain the federal government's authority over state voting laws. The majority could not allow what they viewed as outdated standards to blur the line separating the federal government from the states.

"Our country has changed, and while any racial discrimination in voting is too much, Congress must ensure that the legislation it passes to remedy that problem speaks to current conditions."

Dissenting Opinion

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg dissented, joined by Justice Stephen Breyer, Justice Sonia Sotomayor, and Justice Elena Kagan. According to the dissent, Congress had sufficient evidence to re-authorize the Voting Rights Act for 25 years in 2006. The House and Senate Judiciaries held 21 hearings, Justice Ginsburg wrote, and compiled a record of more than 15,000 pages. Although the evidence showed that the country had made overall progress towards ending voter discrimination, Congress found existing barriers that the VRA could help eliminate. Justice Ginsburg listed racial gerrymandering and voting-at-large instead of district-by-district as "second-generation" barriers to voting. Justice Ginsburg likened getting rid of a preclearance requirement to "throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet."

Impact

Those in favor of the decision viewed it as an affirmation of state sovereignty, while those against it saw it as damaging to voting rights in the U.S. When the Supreme Court found Section 4 unconstitutional, it left the federal government without a way of deciding which jurisdictions should be subject to preclearance requirements. The Court left it to Congress to create a new coverage formula for Section 4.

The Justice Department can still challenge laws that impact voter registration and turnout under Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, but doing so is more difficult, and requires the department to be willing to take on a case.

In light of the Supreme Court ruling, some states passed new voter ID laws and eliminated certain forms of voter registration. Not all of the states that passed laws in the wake of Shelby County v. Holder were ones previously covered by the Voting Rights Act. However, a 2018 study conducted by Vice News found that areas once controlled by Section 5 “closed 20 percent more polling stations per capita than jurisdictions in the rest of the county."

Sources