Civil rights groups blast Supreme Court ruling on Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act

Ruling for the high court, Chief Justice John Roberts said the 1965 law has been a "resounding success" and has ensured that blacks now register and vote at the same rate as whites. But he said it's no longer fair or rational to subject these states and municipalities to special scrutiny based on a formula that is more than 40 years old.

"States must beseech the federal government for permission to implement laws that they would otherwise have a right to enact and execute on their own," he wrote. This conflicts with the principle that all the states enjoy "equal sovereignty" and cannot be subjected to different federal laws, he said.

Though disappointing, many legal observers predicted that the Roberts' court would rule this way.

The New York Times reported:

That the decision did not strike down Section 5, which sets out the preclearance requirement. But without Section 4, which determines which states are covered, Section 5 is without significance — unless Congress chooses to pass a new bill for determining which states would be covered.

Five counties in Florida are under some form of preclearance. In addition to Hillsborough County, Collier, Hardee, Hendry and Monroe (Key West) are also section 5 counties. Last fall the Supervisor of Elections in Monroe, Harry Sawyer, told CL that preclearance was needed more than ever.

"We need this kind of scrutiny. Not because of the supervisors of election, [but] because our legislature and our governor can sign and make law without anyone looking at it when it comes to elections. We need that extra level of protection for our voters, because there are times when the governor and the legislature do not act in the best interests of this state when it comes to voting."

The court ruled today that it is now up to Congress to update the formula for determining which parts of the country must seek Washington's approval, in advance, for election change. The last time the VRA came up for a vote in Congress was in 2006, and it was overwhelmingly supported by members of both parties. Because of that recent precedent, Henderson said he and others who support Section 5 are "encouraged" by what D.C. lawmakers will do with the law going forward.

But 2006 was several years before members of the Tea Party were elected to serve in Washington, making the Republican Party — especially in the House — undoubtedly less favorable in maintaining the law.

New York Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer blasted the ruling, "As long as Republicans have a majority in the House and Democrats don't have 60 votes in the Senate, there will be no preclearance." He added that the ruling is a "back door way to gut the Voting Rights Act."

On a narrow 5-4 vote, the Supreme Court struck down Section 4 of the 1965 Voting Rights Act (VRA) today as being unconstitutional, ruling that states and counties might no longer be forced to seek federal approval before making changes in their election laws.

Section 4 determines which states and counties must receive preclearance from the Justice Department or a federal court in Washington when making any changes — major or minor — to voting procedures. States were put on that list in 1965 because some kind of "test or device" was implemented to restrict the right to vote. In 1975, five counties in Florida (including Hillsborough) were added to the list of Section 5 preclearance jurisdictions, after the law was expanded to include areas that only provided English materials when members of a language minority (Spanish, in Hillsborough's case) made up more than 5 percent of voting-age citizens.

Attorneys with civil rights groups blasted the decision.

"Today's decision was a terrible betrayal of the American people. It was a betrayal of American democracy and the right to every voter to vote free of racial discrimination," said Barbara Arnwine, president and executive director of the national Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.

It was a "major setback for our democracy, and will have a real and detrimental impact on the voting rights of real Americans," said Wade Henderson, president of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.

Sherrilyn Ifill with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, which argued the case in the Supreme Court back in late February, called the ruling "deeply disappointing" and an act of "judicial overreach."

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