WASHINGTON - The Supreme Court today gutted the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965 by a 5-to-4 decision, ruling that Congress has not provided sufficient reason for keeping nine, mostly southern, states under federal oversight.
The majority held that the coverage formula in Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act, originally passed by Congress and signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson, was unconstitutional. The law was a product of years of struggle by the massive civil rights movement led by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
Section 4 is the section that determines which states must receive preclearance from federal authorities. Section 5, which empowers the U.S. Department of Justice to "preclear" any attempt to change "any voting qualification" or procedures in any "covered jurisdiction," is meaningless without Section 4, unless Congress passes a new bill for determining which states or counties would be covered.
Before the ink even dried on today's landmark ruling its implications quickly became stunningly clear.
With the Supreme Court destroying the mechanism that made Texas submit to federal approval before it could implement any election law change, Republican state Attorney General Greg Abbot declared that nothing can stop Texas from putting into effect its draconian voter ID law. Among numerous immediate effects will be the disenfranchisement of millions of minority voters who do not have the required ID.
"With today's decision the state's voter ID law will take effect immediately," Abbot announced. "Redistricting maps passed by the legislature may also take effect without approval from the federal government."
When asked for his reaction to the attorney general's announcement, Laughlin McDonald, director of the ACLU's voting rights office, said, "Texas has a very strong argument that in light of today's Supreme Court decision, it can implement the voter ID law and other laws that previously required federal approval."
Laughlin made that assessment on a telephone call with reporters from outlets across the country, including People's World.
"Today's Supreme Court decision is a major setback to our democracy and the voting rights of real Americans," declared Wade Henderson, president and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, also on the media call.
"We cannot allow discrimination at the ballot box and must prevent minorities from having their votes purged, packed, gerrymandered and redistricted away, Henderson declared. "No one should be fooled by the Pollyannaish fantasy that voting discrimination no longer exists."
Henderson said that he is still hopeful about the current situation, however, even after the ruling.
"As the court acknowledged, voting discrimination still exists and Congress may draft another coverage formula," Henderson said. "We urge Congress to act with urgency and on a bipartisan basis to protect voting rights for minorities."
Henderson said that he was also confident that Congress would "do the right thing" because "for them, this is a matter of pride. This ruling is a slap in the face of Congress," he said.
"What you have here is the Supreme Court overriding the authority of Congress. The court disregarded all the work Congress did back in 2006 when it reauthorized the Voting Rights Act with big bipartisan majorities - 98 votes in the Senate and more than 350 votes in the House."
Reporters on the call were skeptical about the strongly divided Congress being able to do anything, much less rewrite landmark civil rights legislation.
"That is why we must look at the off-year election in 2014 in a different way," said Henderson.
"People stayed home in 2010, during the last off-year election and the results were not as good, perhaps, as they will be if they vote in big numbers in the 2012 off-year election."
Labor union leaders have already condemned the ruling and called for specific actions to reverse its effects.
"Despite the many gains we've made, the evidence that voting discrimination persists is plentiful," said Dennis Van Roekel, president of the National Education Association. The NEA had filed an amicus brief before the case was argued, urging the justices to uphold the Voting Rights Act.
"We must protect the right to vote by holding lawmakers accountable and ensuring every single person's vote can be heard through ballot box," Van Roekel said. "We urge Congress to move immediately toward re-enacting Section 4 with a formula that reflects the unfortunate reality that racial discrimination still exists at the polls and in the fabric of many communities."
Leading the dissenters on the Supreme Court, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said the court majority "completely disregarded" continuing discrimination.
"The court made no genuine attempt to engage with the massive legislative record that Congress assembled. Instead, it relies on increases in voter registration and turnout as if they were the whole story," Ginsburg said. "Without even identifying a standard of review, the court dismissively brushes off arguments based on data from the record, and declines to enter the debate about what the record shows. One would expect more from an opinion striking at the heart of the nation's signal piece of civil rights legislation."
Photo: Dozens of demonstrators line up to enter the North Carolina State Legislative Building were they were arrested during an act of civil disobedience opposing the Republican legislature's agenda, June 10. Hundreds have been arrested since "Moral Monday" demonstrations started on April 29. The NAACP and a growing number of supporters are lashing out at a host of GOP policies ranging from education to voting rights. Travis Long/The News & Observer/AP