Monday, June 22, 2009

The Supreme Court Rules!*

Today the Supreme Court ruled in a case that seems completely mundane and specific, like almost every Supreme Court case, but actually has huge implications. A small municipality in Texas wanted to change its voting location from a private garage to an elementary school. Under section five of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (extended for 25 years in 2006 by Congress) they had to apply with the federal government to make that change to their election procedures.

Section 5 applies to districts from Massachusetts to Alaska, but is disproportionally applied to Southern states. When the Act was written in 1965, registration of whites in the South was up to 50% higher than registration of African-Americans. Literacy tests were given asking questions about obscure state constitutional law and the number of bubbles in a bar of soap.

Southern states did disproportionally discriminate against minorities, and Section 5 sought to rectify that. It states that the districts chosen had to clear any change in their voting law with the federal government, in order to prevent discrimination against minorities. The Court ruled 8-1 that the municipality in this case could apply for a blanket exemption from Section 5, instead of filing separate requests for every change.

This ruling is important because the case was trying to question the constitutionality of Section 5. The Court compromised with the exemption option they offered. The Justices in the majority questioned Section 5 in the actual proceedings, noting that it is unfair to assume that Southern states are inherently more racist than Northern states, but they ended up leaving Section 5 intact.

The Court kind of copped out on the constitutional question presented about Section 5, but in the long run this compromise is much better for fully enfranchised voting than almost any other outcome. This decision is basically the Court's admission that we still need to work to ensure fair voting practices. Clarence Thomas, however, disagrees.

My opinion of Clarence Thomas is heavily influenced by my Supremes experience. Last fall I was lucky enough to sit in on a Court case and I witnessed Thomas' judicial style. He leaned back in his chair, whispered snarkily (or so I assumed) to Breyer, and looking generally like he didn't give a (bleep) about the proceedings. He also happens to be the one dissenting opinion in this case, and I take him a lot less seriously now that I know how he operates. His argument as the lone dissenter in this case was basically that while Section 5 was an extremely effective law in its time, there is no need for it now because there is no systematic campaign of violence against minorities.

The Court's decision to ignore the constitutionality question and create a loophole in Section 5 is, in a roundabout way, support for voter enfranchisement. And Clarence Thomas's dissent is a completely unsurprising sign of his irrelevance.

Check out this great overview of the ruling at Daily Kos.

*Get it? GET IT? I love terrible puns.

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