Bench Memos

Today’s Voting Rights Act Ruling

Here’s a quick summary of the Court’s ruling in Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District Number One v. Holder:

The case presented two questions concerning the preclearance provision (section 5) of the Voting Rights Act:  (1) whether all political subdivisions subject to the preclearance provision are eligible to avail themselves of the “bailout” option; and (2) whether section 5 is unconstitutional.

Chief Justice Roberts’s opinion, joined in full by every other justice except Justice Thomas, ruled that the bailout option was available to all political subdivisions subject to the preclearance provision (not just to those that registered their own voters, as the court below had held).  Because the plaintiff utility district was entitled to a reversal of the judgment below on this statutory ground, the Chief Justice concluded that it was unnecessary to address the constitutional question.  His opinion did observe that the Act’s “preclearance requirements and its coverage formula raise serious constitutional questions.”

In his partial dissent, Justice Thomas opined that the preclearance requirement is unconstitutional.  (I haven’t yet read through his dissent.)