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Interpreting Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District v. Holder


The Left may have won a reprieve in today’s Supreme Court decision on the Voting Rights Act, but all indications are that they may lose the war in the long run. The Court avoided deciding whether Congress’s renewal of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act in 2006 was unconstitutional. Instead, it basically overruled the Justice Department’s narrow reading of the definition of “political subdivisions” that could apply to bail out of coverage. Thus, the small Texas utility district that sued could try to get out from under what amounts to federal receivership: Under Section 5, no covered state can implement a new law effecting voting without getting it preapproved by the Justice Department.

But eight justices, in an opinion written by Chief Justice Roberts, held that Section 5 “raises serious constitutional concerns.” Justice Thomas said in a dissent that he would have gone further and held Section 5 unconstitutional. The majority acknowledged that the prior conditions that existed in the South (Jim Crow) have “unquestionably improved” and the law’s renewal raises serious constitutional concerns. The law has been very successful, but the extraordinary burdens it imposes on certain states may no longer be justified. This language almost guarantees that more lawsuits will be filed challenging the constitutionality of this provision. Hopefully in the next go-round, this now unneeded provision will finally be thrown out.


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