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Supreme Court Strikes Down Key Section Of Voting Rights Act


This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.


And I'm David Greene. The U.S. Supreme Court has announced a significant decision this morning. The court struck down a key section of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. In a 5-to-4 decision, the court said the formula used to identify places that need federal election oversight is unconstitutional. For more on the decision, we have NPR senior Washington editor Ron Elving and justice correspondent Carrie Johnson with us here in Studio 31. Good morning to you both.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Good morning, David.

RON ELVING, BYLINE: Good morning, David.

GREENE: Carrie, let me start with you. What did the court say today?

JOHNSON: So Chief Justice John Roberts, writing for the majority, said that the coverage formula under the Voting Rights Act of 1965 is unconstitutional because it's based on outdated data, election turnout data and other data back from the 1960s and 1970s.

GREENE: This is the formula that decides which localities have to undergo this extra review.

JOHNSON: That's exactly right. And this formula, as of now, covers about nine states and parts of other jurisdictions, mostly in the U.S. South. And it requires them to get preapproval for any election changes they want to make from the federal government before they do anything because in those states, there's allegedly a history of discrimination at the ballot box. But today, the five-justice majority, all the conservatives on the court threw out that formula, saying it's too old, it bears no relation to current conditions in the country. And the court did not, you know, release these states from federal oversight altogether. What it essentially did was say, Congress, you go back if you want this to happen and you rewrite a formula that makes sense for the present day.

David, interestingly, Justice Clarence Thomas would've gone even farther and invalidated the preclearance requirement for those places altogether. The dissent, once again, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, reading her dissent from the bench, said this is essentially a question of who should be in charge - the court or the Congress. And Justice Ginsburg and three other justices said that Congress should be in charge. Congress had reauthorized this well in this formula back in 2006 for 25 years. The majority of the court disagreed.

GREENE: A lot of nuance here. So these requirements, this review is still in place, they just need a formula to figure out which states have to go through the review that's now thrown out. How did this change thing for states? I mean, are some - any still required to go through some sort of approval to determine or redraw congressional districts?

JOHNSON: David, this is going to throw the process into a bit of an uproar at this point. It is not clear at all how this is going to work in the next election, especially if Congress is not able to weigh in before then. And it makes the most difference in small states and small jurisdictions, David, mostly in the South, where, in some places, civil rights advocates say state officials are deterred from acting in a discriminatory manner by the very fact of having to notify the federal government of what they're about to do. So civil rights advocates are very worried that there's going to be a lot more discrimination at the ballot box as a result.

GREENE: Ron Elving, that the court has, in some ways, kicked the ball over to Congress. Do we expect lawmakers to take this up and maybe rewrite this formula?

ELVING: Not necessarily. Some will, of course, want to do so immediately, and some will want to do so quite aggressively. Some will want to reproduce the formula as it was written back in 1975 when they based it on 1972 election data. But there are also a lot of people who are not so excited about doing that, and it's usually easier to stop something from happening in Congress than it is to make something happen in Congress.

Now people are going to look at the vote when this bill was last reauthorized in 2006. The Senate approved it unanimously - unanimously. The House approved it with 390 votes, just 33 against. That would strongly suggest that people approved of the law. But they approved of it knowing that the formula hadn't changed, they didn't get into the controversy about how the formula might change, and had they done so - had they gotten into that - you would've seen a very different vote, and possibly the law would not have been reauthorized.

So in a sense, there's been a powder keg in the hold of the ship in 2006. We saw Chief Justice Roberts warn about this the last time they reviewed the law in 2009. And now he has come back and made good on his warning by saying, I told you I didn't think that this was still current. I thought that it was out of date. The South has changed. You need to recognize that. And I am striking down this law until you change the formula.

GREENE: And in the few seconds we have left, Ron, what message are we getting from the court when it comes to race?

ELVING: The message is that the court wants to see the country become less race-conscious in the application of its laws, including those laws that were adopted in order to remediate past race consciousness and prejudice.

GREENE: And Carrie Johnson, we're expecting another big decision from the court tomorrow in same-sex marriage.

JOHNSON: Yes, David. The chief announced that tomorrow will be the last and final day of this term. We're waiting on the constitutionality of Proposition 8 in California, and whether the court is going to uphold the Defense of Marriage Act.

GREENE: All right. Ron Elving, Carrie Johnson, we'll be talking again tomorrow, I'm sure. Thank you, both.

ELVING: Thank you, David.

JOHNSON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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