WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that a key provision of the landmark Voting Rights Act cannot be enforced unless Congress comes up with an up-to-date formula for deciding which states and localities still need federal monitoring.
The justices said in 5-4 vote that the law Congress most recently renewed in 2006 relies on 40-year-old data that does not reflect racial progress and changes in U.S. society.
The court did not strike down the advance approval requirement of the law that has been used, mainly in the South, to open up polling places to minority voters in the nearly half century since it was first enacted in 1965. But the justices did say lawmakers must update the formula for determining which parts of the country must seek Washington's approval, in advance, for election changes.
Chief Justice John Roberts said for the conservative majority that Congress "may draft another formula based on current conditions."
That task eluded Congress in 2006 when lawmakers overwhelmingly renewed the advance approval requirement with no changes in which states and local jurisdictions were covered, and Congress did nothing in response to a high court ruling in a similar challenge in 2009 in which the justices raised many of the same concerns.
"The coverage formula that Congress reauthorized in 2006 ignores these developments, keeping the focus on decades-old data relevant to decades-old problems, rather than current data reflecting current needs," Roberts said.
The decision means that a host of state and local laws that have not received Justice Department approval or have not yet been submitted will be able to take effect. Prominent among those are voter identification laws in Alabama and Mississippi.
Going forward, the outcome alters the calculus of passing election-related legislation in the affected states and local jurisdictions. The threat of an objection from Washington has hung over election-related proposals for nearly a half century. At least until Congress acts, that deterrent now is gone.
That prospect has worried civil rights groups which especially worry that changes on the local level might not get the same scrutiny as the actions of state legislatures.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, joined by her three liberal colleagues, dissented from Tuesday's ruling.
Ginsburg said no one doubts that voting discrimination still exists. "But the court today terminates the remedy that proved to be best suited to block that discrimination," she said in a dissent that she read aloud in the packed courtroom.
Ginsburg said the law continues to be necessary to protect against what she called subtler, "second-generation" barriers to voting. She identified one such effort as the switch to at-large voting from a district-by-district approach in a city with a sizable black minority. The at-large system allows the majority to "control the election of each city council member, effectively eliminating the potency of the minority's votes," she said.
Justice Clarence Thomas was part of the majority, but wrote separately to say again that he would have struck down the advance approval requirement itself.
Civil rights lawyers condemned the ruling.
"The Supreme Court has effectively gutted one of the nation's most important and effective civil rights laws. Minority voters in places with a record of discrimination are now at greater risk of being disenfranchised than they have been in decades. Today's decision is a blow to democracy. Jurisdictions will be able to enact policies which prevent minorities from voting, and the only recourse these citizens will have will be expensive and time-consuming litigation," said Jon Greenbaum, chief counsel for the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. The group represented a black resident of the Alabama County that challenged the law.