Supreme Court passes the ball

Jam of the week: “The Sun” by The Naked and Famous

While Edward Snowden doesn’t even have the decency to wear a striped shirt to help the U.S. government in a worldwide “Where’s Waldo,” and others scandals show little new information, the Supreme Court of the United States made headlines Tuesday when a 5-4 decision ruled that a provision of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was unconstitutional.

The ruling concerned Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act, which defines the formula for what areas of the country must have changes to their voting procedures approved by the federal government. The first element of the formula was whether, in 1964, if states had a “test or device” restricting the opportunity to register and vote, according ot the U.S. Justice Department. Those states included Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina and Virgina. A later expansion of the act in 1972 included the whole of Alaska, Arizona and Texas.

Several states, including California, Florida, New York, North Carolina and South Dakota contained several counties that were bound to the act as well. Several townships in Michigan were also added in 1972.

The case which brought this ruling was Shelby County v. Holder. Selby County, in Alabama, said the ruling subjects them to a double standard and infringes on state sovereignty. Chief Justice Roberts, who wrote the majority opinion of the court, noted that this ruling does not change the act’s ban on racial discrimination in voting. He also noted that, in Mississippi, seven percent of african americans voted in 1965, and 76 percent voted in 2004.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote the dissenting opinion, saying it was the job of Congress, not the court, to decide when the section of the act was no longer viable. Congress did renew the act in 2006, extending it for 25 years. Both Roberts and Ginsburg agree that Congress must be involved in the process, but to different extents. While Ginsburg said the decision of the ruling should be Congress’ job, Roberts said Congress has to come up with a new way of determining which states and localities require federal monitoring of elections.

While I would likely still be in school if I was a legal scholar, instead of writing this column, I believe this decision essentially passed the ball to Congress on what to do about Sections 4 and 5 of the Voting Rights Act. Section 5 simply lays out which states, counties and townships are required to have federal approval for changes to voting rules.

So now, we have Congress at the free-throw line, with a “deeply disappointed” Obama, a “hopeful” Holder who said Congress must act because existing statutes won’t fill the void, and dismayed civil rights groups on the edge of their seats to see if Congress can sink the shot. Personally, I see less Kevin Martin and more Shaquille O’Neal in Congress’ ability to make that free throw.

Of course, the arguing in the peanut gallery hinges on anecdotes about racism, or a relative lack of, in the South today where many of the states that were bound to this act are located. Are there still barriers for minority voters? Do these restrictions still have a purpose nearly 50 years after being implemented? Is there a better way of doing things? I think these are all questions that need to be debated. However, I can’t say I have faith in Congress to do it, and do it quickly.