Indiana News

IU Law Prof Says Supreme Court Gutted Voting Rights Act

Fuentes-Rohwer: Section 4 was glue holding rest of law together


They only struck down one section, but an Indiana University law professor says the Supreme Court gutted the most important part of the federal Voting Rights Act.

The court ruled 5-4 that the federal government had not provided enough justification to subject nine states, mostly in the South, to federal oversight of their voting laws and districts. The court's conservative majority found that the coverage formula outlined in Section 4 of the 1965 law was unconstitutional, with Chief Justice John Roberts writing that the nation has moved on from the discrimination that took place at the polls in the past.  "Today, the nation is no longer divided along those lines, yet the Voting Rights Act continues to treat it as if it were," Roberts wrote.

Luis Fuentes-Rohwer, a professor at the Maurer School of Law at I.U., says that while the other portions of the law remain intact, the formula from Section 4 was the glue holding the law together.  "The formula used in '65 to decide which states would be covered is out.  So basically, no states are covered by the Voting Rights Act," said Fuentes-Rohwer.  Congress could create a new formula, but the professor doesn't see that happening given the polarized nature of Washington.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg summarized her dissent from the bench of the Supreme Court, making reference to Martin Luther King, Junior.  “The great man who led the march from Selma to Montgomery and there called for the passage of the Voting Rights Act foresaw progress, even in Alabama,” she said. “'The arc of the moral universe is long,’ he said, but ‘it bends toward justice,’ if there is a steadfast commitment to see the task through to completion.”

While the justices did not strike down the Justice Department's preclearance authority in Section 5 of the law, Fuentes-Rowher says they might as well have done so.  "Preclearance, the part of the law that forces covered jurisdictions to preclear their (voting) laws with the federal government, that part of the law is out."

Fuentes-Rowher is also surprised that the court ruled against a law that was overwhelmingly renewed by Congress in 2006 - the vote was 390-33 in the House and 98-0 in the Senate.  He believes this will lead to future courts striking down other portions of the voting rights law.  "There's not much left, nothing of great significance.  The court is not done," Fuentes-Rohwer said.

Reaction in Indiana depended upon political bent.  Republican Congressman Todd Rokita praised the ruling as an "affirmation of the great strides we have made as a nation."  Democratic Congressman Andre Carson was disappointed and hopes Congress will act quickly to come up with a new Section 4 formula.  "This decision does not imply that voter discrimination issues have been solved. Rather the Court has made clear that it falls on Congress to address the challenges that remain and ensure fair and equal access to the polls for all Americans," Carson said in a statement.



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