EDITORIAL: Ironies in Upholding Of Voting Rights Act
Ironies abound in Monday's U.S. Supreme Court ruling on the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which covers nine states plus 40 North Carolina counties (not including Moore).
The first irony is that the court's 8-1 decision, correctly declining to gut the law, should come during the administration of the nation's first black president. Those challenging continuation of the act had argued that the election of Barack Obama was proof enough that it was no longer necessary. But the court wasn't quite ready to cut the affected states altogether free of electoral oversight.
Some may see another irony in the fact that Chief Justice John Roberts, appointed by the most conservative president in recent memory, wrote the majority opinion. Though recognizing that "things have changed in the South" and that "blatantly discriminatory evasions of federal decrees are rare," he and all but one of his fellow justices were loath to junk Section 5, which requires certain states and political entities with a history of racial discrimination to obtain preclearance for any election-related changes.
There is unmistakable irony in the fact that the lone dissenter was none other than Clarence Thomas, who is the court's only black member -- but also a doctrinaire conservative deeply suspicious of any federal intrusion into the prerogatives of the states.
'Outmoded Federal Intrusion'?
The challenge to the law had originally been a local and limited one. An obscure Texas governmental entity, the Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District No. 1, had asked a lower court to be allowed to "bail out" of the preclearance requirement. But the case took on wider importance as conservative groups joined the fray and asked on appeal that the justices strike down Section 5 altogether as "an inappropriate and outmoded and expansive federal intrusion into state sovereignty."
To be sure, the Johnson-era Voting Rights Act has always stood as one of the most extreme examples of assertion of federal authority over the states since Reconstruction. Many still find it troubling, and it would never have been enacted in the first place if the racially motivated electoral injustices prevailing in so many Southern locales hadn't been so blatant.
But Congress, voting in 2006 to extend Section 5 for 25 years, acted out of conviction that the situation, though vastly improved, was far from perfect. There were still too many hundreds of complaints about lingering, scattered attempts to intimidate or mislead minority voters. It was that extension that those pressing the suit were attempting to reverse.
Deference Toward Congress
One more irony: Though reviewing laws is one of the duties of the courts under our system of divided powers, a frequently voiced tenet of the modern conservative movement is that "nonelected judges" shouldn't be "making law" or "legislating from the bench." Yet here we have the nonelected Supreme Court being urged to nullify a piece of legislation duly approved by the elected House and Senate.
Roberts conceded that "the act's preclearance requirements ... raise serious constitutional questions," but he gave Congress credit for assembling "a sizable record" justifying continued federal supervision. In the end, he said, the expressed will of the legislative branch deserved "great deference" from the judicial one.
Much has changed for the better in the past half-century. But both branches seem to agree, in effect, that the U.S. government's attitude toward electoral practices in lower jurisdictions might be summed up in Ronald Reagan's favorite Russian proverb: "Trust, but verify."
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