Supreme Court makes historic voting rights law harder to enforce

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- It was a law passed at the height of America's civil rights movement, when citizens in parts of the country were fighting each other and sometimes authorities over how skin color impacts a person's place in a democracy.

The Supreme Court ruled Tuesday in a 5-4 decision that key parts of that law, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, were no longer valid. The prevailing opinion leaves it up to Congress to revise the law, so that it's constitutional in the minds of a majority of justices.

The main reason for the decision, Chief Justice John Robert explained, was that "our country has changed" for the better. The deplorable conditions that spurred Congress five decades ago requiring certain parts of the United States to "preclear" changes to voting laws "no longer characterize voting in the covered jurisdictions."

The formula that Congress enacted in 2006, to determine which areas are covered by the act, have "no logical relation to the present day," Roberts wrote in the majority opinion.

"While any racial discrimination in voting is too much, Congress must ensure that the legislation it passes to remedy the problem speaks to the current conditions," he said.

Officials in places like Selma County, Alabama, hailed the ruling. But President Barack Obama and others in his administration did not, nor did civil rights leaders.

John Lewis is one of them. Born to sharecroppers in Alabama in 1940, he became a leader in the civil rights movement, working with the likes of Martin Luther King Jr. In March of 1965, he led hundreds protesting voting rights in Alabama when they were confronted by Alabama authorities after crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma -- an incident that became known as "Bloody Sunday."

Now a U.S. representative from Georgia, Lewis said what happened then is relevant now, claiming "numerous attempts to impede voting rights" nationwide still need to be addressed. To him, the high court decision -- which he said "stuck a dagger into the heart of the Voting Rights Act" -- is personal.

"These men never stood in unmovable lines," said Lewis, speaking of the justices. "They were never denied the right to participate in the democratic process. They were never beaten, jailed, run off their farms or fired from their jobs.

"No one they knew died simply trying to register to vote. They are not the victims of gerrymandering or contemporary unjust schemes to maneuver them out of their constitutional rights," Lewis said.

What the ruling says

The case arrived at the Supreme Court because officials in Shelby County filed suit against the federal government. The suit said monitoring of voting procedures under the law -- including the formula to determine which areas it applied to, which was reauthorized seven years ago -- was overly burdensome and unwarranted.

The appeal presented the court and its slim conservative majority with two of the most hotly debated issues in politics and constitutional law: race and federalism.

It was a major test of Washington's authority and the extent to which the federal government may consider vestiges of voting discrimination that may still linger, potentially keeping some minority voters disenfranchised.

In her dissenting opinion, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg pointed out that Congress passed the latest installment of the Voting Rights Act with "overwhelming bipartisan support," saying the representatives legitimately exercised their constitutional powers in doing so.

But the ruling decision effectively overrides that congressional action, affecting the Voting Rights Act in several important ways:

• Section 4, the part of the law that was struck down, is the coverage formula the federal government uses to determine which states and counties are subject to continued oversight. Roberts said that formula from 1972 was outdated and unworkable.

• Section 5 of the law effectively cannot be enforced, because it relies heavily on the coverage formula. Civil rights groups say Section 5 has been an important tool to protect minority voters from local governments that would set unfair, shifting barriers to the polls. Without it, they warn, the very power and effect of the entire Voting Rights Act would crumble. But opponents of the provision counter it should not be enforced in areas where it can be argued that racial discrimination no longer exists.

• Under Section 5, any changes in voting laws and procedures in those covered states -- including much of the South -- had to be "precleared" with Washington. Such changes could have included something as simple as moving a polling place temporarily across the street.

In his ruling opinion, Roberts faulted Congress for not updating "the coverage formula" last decade to reflect changing times.

"Its failure leaves us today with no choice but to declare Section 4 unconstitutional," he wrote. "The formula in that section can no longer be used as a basis for subjecting jurisdictions to preclearance."

Overdue or 'outrageous'?

The Obama administration says states have gotten out of Section 5. In recent years, 31 cities and counties and Virginia successfully petitioned to be exempt from the preclearance requirements, though the rest of the state remains under federal oversight.

The Justice Department on Monday announced that Hanover County, north of Richmond, would also become exempt.

Shelby County -- which is outside Birmingham -- did not make such a request, even though it did oppose Sections 4 and 5 on legal grounds. Some 11% of its residents are African-American, compared with 28% statewide.

Some conservative groups have argued that "ancient formulas" are being applied today, not to erase discrimination, but to benefit a particular political party. Some liberal activists counter that Section 5 and federal oversight are being demonized by many on the right for purely partisan gain, and to divide Americans again over race.

Whatever their opinion on the matter, figures on both sides of the debate agreed that Tuesday's ruling is significant.

The American Civil Liberties Union's Laughlin McDonald said it poses a "real challenge to Americans' fundamental right to vote."

NAACP President Ben Jealous called the decision "outrageous," because it makes minority voters "more vulnerable to the flood of attacks we have seen in recent years."

The law had been working in preventing "discriminatory voting changes," Attorney General Eric Holder said.

Specifically, he mentioned how it blocked Texas from adopting a new congressional redistricting map that would have "discriminated against Latino voters."

Holder also said the Voting Rights Act changed how South Carolina will implement a law requiring photo identification before being allowed to vote. Those changes, he said, protected black voters who would have been "disproportionately" affected.

President Obama characterized Tuesday's ruling as a "setback," even as he vowed his "administration will continue to do everything in its power to ensure a fair and equal voting process."

Voting discrimination, he said, still exists, and the decision "upsets decades of well-established practices that help make sure voting is fair."

But the sentiments were markedly different in Alabama, where Gov. Robert Bentley said the decision "reflects how conditions have improved."

"The justices correctly acknowledged that the covered jurisdictions should no longer be punished by the federal government for conditions that existed over 40 years ago," said Frank Ellis, the county attorney for Shelby County. "The South is an altogether different place than it was in 1965."