Shelby v. Holder: Supreme Court Invalidates Key Provision of Voting Rights Act


Over forty-five years after Congress passed the Voting Rights Act of 1965, a deeply divided U.S. Supreme Court has invalidated one of its key provisions. By a vote of 5-4, the Court ruled that Section 4, which establishes states and municipalities that must obtain federal approval before changing their voting laws, is unconstitutional.

The Facts of the Case

Petitioner Shelby County, in the covered jurisdiction of Alabama, sued the Attorney General, seeking a declaratory judgment that sections 4(b) and 5 are facially unconstitutional, as well as a permanent injunction against their enforcement. Section 4 of the Act provides the "coverage formula," defining the "covered jurisdictions" as States or political subdivisions that maintained tests or devices as prerequisites to voting, and had low voter registration or turnout, in the 1960s and early 1970s. In those covered jurisdictions, Section 5 of the Act provides that no change in voting procedures can take effect until approved by federal authorities. Such approval is known as "preclearance."

The District Court upheld the Voting Rights Act, finding that the evidence before Congress in 2006 was sufficient to justify reauthorizing Section 5 and continuing Section 4(b)'s coverage formula. The D. C. Circuit affirmed. After surveying the evidence in the record, that court accepted Congress's conclusion that litigation remained an inadequate remedy to protect the rights of minority voters. It further found that Section 5 was therefore still necessary, and that the coverage formula continued to pass constitutional muster.

The Supreme Court’s Decision....

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