This post originally appeared as part of a Reuters.com series focusing on a Supreme Court case that could strike down a critical component of the Voting Rights Act.
By Abigail Thernstrom
"The smart money is on the court striking down [Section 5 of the
Voting Rights Act] as an improper exercise of congressional
power," Rick Hasen has warned in his introduction to this forum.
That bet is a poor one.
The "experts" may well be proven wrong - as they were in
2009 when the Supreme Court found no reason to rush into a
constitutional judgment on the constitutionality of
pre-clearance. "Our usual practice," Chief Justice John Roberts
said then, "is to avoid the unnecessary resolution of
constitutional questions." And that is just what the court did.
Today, however, those worried about the future of the Voting
Rights Act nervously point to a remark by the chief justice in a
2006 congressional redistricting case. "It is a sordid
business," Roberts said, "this divvying us up by race."
The remark suggested race-driven maps would not survive another review of Section 5's constitutionality, and yet the enforcement of the pre-clearance provision has long involved race-conscious districting. To forbid "divvying up" is to insist
that the Justice Department and the courts craft very different
remedies for electoral discrimination than the familiar ones -
though a commitment to those race-based districting plans has
long been a civil rights litmus test.
Spokesmen for the civil-rights community have been right to
say that far fewer candidates for legislative office would have
been elected had they not been protected from white competition
in the safe majority-minority districts that Section 5 came to
demand. But after decades of racial change, the balance between
costs and benefits is no longer the simple question it was when
Southern white voters would not vote for black candidates -
whatever their credentials.
The question of racial change has been front and center in
the arguments made by Shelby County and others who support the
county's constitutional challenge to pre-clearance. And in
deciding Shelby County v. Holder, the Supreme Court might focus
on that question: Is Section 5 a relic from a previous era of
massive disfranchisement in the South?
Alternatively, the court could leave the structure of
Section 5 as enacted in 1965 intact and target the provision's
2006 amendments, which increased its vulnerability to
constitutional challenge. The amendments revise the definition
of discriminatory purpose and implicitly demand that states (to
an even great degree than before) engage in constitutionally
problematic race-based districting.
Will the court in the Shelby case focus on those 2006
constitutionally problematic amendments, as I believe it should?
We court watchers have no idea.
Reuters has asked: If Section 5 is declared
unconstitutional, what should come next? The answer depends on
precisely what the court has to say.
But those who are fearful that a majority of justices will
agree that Section 5 is yesterday's emergency legislation might
think about the following question: Will Justice Anthony Kennedy
(the pivotal vote) want banner headlines in the mainstream media
that, however misleadingly, read, "Court declares VRA [Voting
Rights Act] to be unconstitutional"?
The "smart money," I believe, will bet that the answer is
no. And Section 5, in some form, will survive.
(Abigail Thernstrom is the author of "Voting Rights - and
Wrongs: The Elusive Quest for Racially Fair Elections." She is
an adjunct scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and vice
chairwoman of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.)