Opinion

The Great Debate

Think we don’t need to update the Voting Rights Act? Check out Tuesday’s primaries.

mahurin-for-troutt--- nelson

The door is open for Congress to repair the nation’s most transformative election law, which was neutered by the U.S. Supreme Court a year ago today.

Chief Justice John Roberts, in his majority opinion for Shelby County, Alabama v. Holder, issued Congress a written invitation to renew the Voting Rights Act of 1965 after striking down Section 4 of the act and disabling the strongest safety check against racial discrimination in voting.  The Senate Judiciary Committee hearing Wednesday on the Voting Rights Amendment Act shows that his invitation did not fall on deaf ears or timid hearts.

Swift and dauntless action is needed in both houses of Congress, however, to ensure that voting remains an equal opportunity exercise for all Americans, and that Congress remains a relevant force in the defense of voting rights in places like Mississippi, Texas, Georgia and beyond.

roberts-better11On Tuesday, conservative groups marshaled poll watchers for the senatorial primary run-off in Mississippi. Though a court blocked their presence inside polling places, their position just outside threatened to intimidate voters who had come to cast their ballots — echoing the power that poll watchers exercised throughout the Jim Crow South.

This is one example of potential voter suppression that minority voters have confronted in the year since the Shelby decision was handed down. The countdown to the next midterm and general elections has already begun and, since that ruling, states across the South and beyond have resurrected discriminatory voting restrictions — and invented new ones.

The increasing significance of race

Behind every Supreme Court decision is a sociology of ordinary life. Opinions reveal the justices’ view of what’s what in the world, how people act and why things change.

Justices probably prefer that we focus on their legal analyses, but we can glean the sociology behind their assumptions. Last week, judicial world views spun into interplanetary conflict when the court voted to affirm Michigan’s vote to bar all consideration of race, gender, ethnicity, color or national origin in public decision-making, including in state college admissions.

The justices based their decision on a novel faith in the democratic process, which Justice Sonia Sotomayor spent 58 pages countering in a dissent that seemed to come from another universe.

Opening the political money chutes

The headline about a new Supreme Court opinion rarely tells the whole story.  Rather, the detailed reasoning of the ruling often reveals whether a decision is a blockbuster or a dud.

When the court writes broadly, it can eventually remake entire industries, government practices or areas of the law. Lawyers and lower courts scrutinize an opinion’s every line and footnote, pouring over the legal reasoning and noting subtle changes from the court’s earlier decisions in the same area.

This is why it is fair to call last week’s Supreme Court ruling in the campaign finance case McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission a blockbuster case. In McCutcheon, the court struck down limits on the total amount that an individual could give to federal candidates, parties and certain political committees in an election cycle.

Roberts Court: Easier to donate, harder to vote

Chief Justice John Roberts’ first sentence of his majority opinion in McCutcheon v. Federal Elections Commission, striking down important limits on campaign contributions, declares “There is no right more basic in our democracy than the right to participate in electing our political leaders.”

A look at the Roberts Court’s record, however, shows that this may not be its guiding principle.

Through a series of rulings, the court’s conservative majority’s rulings have instead made it easier for big-money donors to influence elections — while making it harder for many Americans to use the only political influence they have: their vote.

McCutcheon: Should the rich speak louder?

On Wednesday, the Supreme Court handed down its most important decision on campaign finance reform since Citizens United. The decision, McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission, seemed to divide along familiar ideological lines, with Chief Justice John Roberts writing the majority opinion for five conservatives and Justice Stephen Breyer, writing the dissent for the four liberals.

What really divided the court, however, wasn’t partisan politics pitting Republicans against Democrats but two conflicting views of the First Amendment. Which view you embrace depends on whether you see the McCutcheon decision as a principled triumph for unpopular speech or a First Amendment disaster that will ensure that a handful of the richest Americans can use their vast resources to drown out the voices of everyone else.

The First Amendment view embraced by Roberts and his conservative colleagues is rooted in individual liberty. There’s no right in our democracy more fundamental, Roberts began, than the First Amendment safeguards for “an individual’s right to participate in the public debate through political expression and political association.”

Roberts: The ‘swing’ justice of election law

Tuesday’s oral argument in McCutcheon v. FEC, the latest high-profile campaign finance case, will likely generate familiar storylines about a fiercely ideological Supreme Court, where one justice drives the outcome of a close 5-4 decision. Public perception of the Supreme Court is that there are four conservatives, four liberals and Justice Anthony Kennedy in the middle — as the “swing” vote.

But that’s wrong — at least where voting rights and campaign finance cases are concerned. Though Kennedy’s vote dictates some outcomes when the court is split 5-4 along ideological lines, another justice has been the driving force behind current election law jurisprudence. In this matter, it is truly Chief Justice John Roberts’s court.

Since Roberts became chief justice in 2005, the court has issued 23 written opinions involving voting rights, redistricting or campaign finance. Roberts is the only justice who has been in the majority every time. In addition, he has written twice as many majority opinions in this field as any other justice — six, as compared to Kennedy’s three. Roberts has now written more than 25 percent of the election law decisions handed down since he joined the court.

The Supreme Court’s race impatience

ILLUSTRATION: Matt Mahurin

As Tuesday’s decision gutting the heart of the Voting Rights Act made clear, it is June and a slim conservative majority of Supreme Court justices is again impatient with race.

Judging from President Barack Obama’s initial tepid, nonracial reaction, the first black president — whose reelection hinged in part on an expanded minority voting base — is impatient with the Supreme Court, race or both. And Congress is, well, stuck on Congress.

What we’re seeing from the Roberts Court’s recent race decisions, however, is an aggressive colorblindness, cloaked in hubris and federalism – or states’ rights. Working to do away with race at all costs, this colorblindness is administered through the court’s growing demands that any civil rights remedy be tailored with a narrowness approaching oblivion.

Gutting the landmark civil rights legislation

 

The Supreme Court’s Shelby County v. Holder decision on Tuesday essentially cast aside the key component of the nation’s most important civil rights legislation.

The five “conservative” justices castigated Congress for putting too much emphasis on history by failing to update the “coverage formula” in Section 4 of the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Section 4 specifies which states and local jurisdictions must “pre-clear” with the Justice Department or the Washington district court all changes in election laws – anything from adding voter ID regulations to redistricting. Areas now subject to this federal oversight have had a substantial history of voter discrimination.

GOP v. Voting Rights Act

The Republican Party is in danger of reaping what it has sown.

Much has been written about the GOP’s problem with minority voters.  Quite simply, the party has managed to alienate every nonwhite constituency in the nation.

This is not an accidental or sudden phenomenon. Ever since Republicans chose almost 50 years ago to pursue a Southern strategy, to embrace and promote white voters’ opposition to civil rights, the party has been on a path toward self-segregation.

Successive Republican administrations have pursued agendas that included retreating on civil rights enforcement and opposing government programs that increase minority opportunity. That steady progression culminated in Mitt Romney’s disastrous showing among African-American, Latino and Asian voters.

What happened to post-racial America?

The Supreme Court heard arguments Wednesday in a long-standing racial controversy – without any reverberations on the presidential campaign.  This reveals a lot about emerging racial politics of the Obama era.

The court is deciding whether public universities can consider race in their admissions process, and a broad ruling here could make affirmative action illegal across state and federal governments. That means, among other things, less diversity in the halls of power.

The solicitor general for America’s first African-American president cautioned against that fate. The United States needs affirmative action, he told the court, because it helps groom “effective leaders in an increasingly diverse society.”

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