WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Tuesday gutted a key portion of the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965, ruling that Congress 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.
In a 5-4 decision with the court’s conservative justices in the majority, the court ruled in favor of officials from Shelby County, Ala., by declaring invalid a section of the law that set a formula that determines which states need federal approval to change voting laws.
Writing for the majority, conservative Chief Justice John Roberts said the coverage formula that Congress used when it most recently reauthorized 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.
“I am deeply disappointed by the Supreme Court’s ruling today,” Maine 1st District U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, a Democrat, said in a statement Tuesday. “Congress did the right thing by putting the Voting Rights Act into place in the first place and by reaffirming it time and time again over the last fifty years.
“Voting discrimination still exists — Congress has repeatedly come to that conclusion and the Supreme Court itself acknowledged it,” she added. “By gutting the Voting Rights Act, the Court has dealt a major setback for voting rights and the decision will have a real and detrimental impact on voters.”
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.
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 Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, a Democrat, on Tuesday pledged to move quickly to try to restore voting rights protections after the Supreme Court’s 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 Martin Luther King Jr.
In her written opinion, she accused Roberts of downplaying the authority Congress has under amendments to the Constitution that were enacted after the 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.
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.
In February, President Barack Obama, the first black U.S. president and a Democrat, decried barriers to voting in America and announced a commission to address voting issues.
The case is Shelby County v. Holder, U.S. Supreme Court, No. 12-96. (Additional reporting by Joan Biskupic and Richard Cowan; Editing by Howard Goller and Will Dunham)