Case Summary

Under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, certain "covered" jurisdictions are required to obtain approval ("preclearance") from the U.S. Attorney General or the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia before enacting changes to their election laws and procedures by showing that their proposed change "neither has the purpose nor will have the effect" of impairing or interfering with any person's right to vote on account of their race or minority status. Section 4(b) of the VRA defines which jurisdictions are subject to Section 5 as those that had a voting test in place as of November 1, 1964, and less than 50% turnout for the 1964 presidential election. In 2010, Shelby County, Alabama, a covered jurisdiction, filed suit against the Attorney General in Federal Court in Washington, D.C., seeking a declaratory judgment that Sections 4(b) and 5 were unconstitutional. The plaintiffs alleged that the circumstances originally justifying those provisions in 1965 no longer existed, and that the Act violated the principles of federalism and equal state sovereignty by treating States differently based upon now-outdated standards and justifications.

In 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court held that the Section 4(b)'s coverage formula was unconstitutional in light of current conditions. Having already noted the "serious constitutional questions" raised by Section 4(b) in a 2009 case before it, the Court found that coverage today is based on "decades-old data and eradicated practices" and in order to justify the Act's "extraordinary and unprecedented" features, such a determination must be grounded in current conditions. The Court explained that in 1965, the remedy of preclearance was rationally and justifiably tailored to cover only those jurisdictions where discriminatory voting tests and low voter registration and turnout were present. Nearly 50 years later, the nationwide racial voting disparities which originally justified the Act's passage no longer exist and yet, Congress has repeatedly failed to update Section 4(b)'s coverage formula to reflect "current political conditions." Imposing preclearance via Section 4(b) upon some states and not others based upon their historical, not present, voting conditions violates the States' constitutional right to regulate elections.

Significance: Voting Rights Act Section 4(b), the coverage formula used to determine which jurisdictions were subject to preclearance under Section 5, is unconstitutional, and as a result, preclearance under Section 5 is no longer required.

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U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia - 1:10-cv-00651

U.S. Supreme Court - Nos. 12-81; 12-96 [570 U.S. 529 (2013)]