US Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts has had an ongoing vendetta against the Voting Rights Act (VRA) since he arrived in Washington DC as a neophyte attorney, fresh out of Harvard Law School in 1980. His ongoing battle to dismantle the VRA culminated in 2013 with the Shelby County v. Holder decision. This ruling effectively gutted the VRA, which had been signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson fifty years ago this month. Since then, Chief Justice Roberts and other conservative justices (including Scalia, who has called the VRA “racial entitlement”) have been accused of racism – but the truth behind Roberts’ reasoning is more complicated. It has less to do with race than it does his extreme libertarian philosophy.
The problem is not that Roberts is a racist, but rather, he believes that racism does not truly exist.
The original 1965 legislation did not contain anything new as far as protecting a citizen’s right to vote; its intent was to enforce those statutes already in place under the 14th and 15th Amendments of the Constitution. At the heart of Shelby County v. Holder were two “special provisions” of the VRA, which were applicable only to certain regions of the country with a history of entrenched racial discrimination when it came to voting rights. One of these provisions was found in Section 4. Paragraph A stated: “the right to vote is not denied or abridged on account of race or color, no citizen shall be denied the right to vote in any Federal, State, or local election because of his failure to comply with any test or device.”
In other words, no citizen of any race or ancestry can be required to pass a “literacy test,” pay a “poll tax” or otherwise “qualify” to vote. Under Paragraph B, Section 4 was applicable only to states and jurisdictions found to have engaged in such abuses by the US Attorney General. Section 4 set the foundation for Section 5, which contained a “preclearance” requirement. This section of the VRA required certain jurisdictions to prove to the AG or a panel of federal judges that their voting laws were not discriminatory under Section 4.
This was the primary issue for Chief Justice Roberts and his four colleagues. The majority ruled that the “coverage formula” under Section 4b overstepped the bounds established by the 14th and 15th Amendments. According to the majority opinion, this section violated states’ rights and subjected different states to different standards. Writing for the majority, Roberts stated that Section 4b was “based on 40 year-old facts having no logical relationship to the present day.”
In Roberts’ mind, Section 4b of the VRA had outlived its usefulness. Apparently, draconian voter ID laws intended to restrict voting, particularly among those of lower socioeconomic status, are not “discriminatory.” Under the guise of “federalism” and “states’ rights,” the Roberts court – whatever the intentions – has once again opened the door for the return of “Jim Crow” in modern dress. At the same time, the SCOTUS majority acknowledges that lawmakers “may draft another formula based on current conditions” – but with right-wing Republicans in control of both houses of Congress, it is unlikely that new legislation addressing the problem will be introduced anytime soon.