“Our country has changed, and while any racial discrimination in voting is too much, Congress must ensure that the legislation it passes to remedy that problem speaks to current conditions.” — Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in the majority opinion. “Throwing out preclearance when it has worked and is continuing to work to stop discriminatory changes is like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet.” — Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote in the dissent.
WASHINGTON — Louisiana and a handful of other mostly Southern states are no longer under extra scrutiny from the federal government on voting laws and much more because of Tuesday’s high-profile U.S. Supreme Court ruling that struck down a key provision of the Voting Rights Act.
The Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that Congress should come up with an up-to-date formula for deciding which states and localities still need federal monitoring.
The majority of the court ruled that the existing law relies on 40-year-old data that does not reflect racial progress and changes in U.S. society. The other four justices countered that the ruling will allow racial prejudices to creep back into some states’ laws.
Partisan gridlock in Congress means action is unlikely in the short term.
The ruling could affect several pending cases on the local level in Louisiana, ranging from the composition of the Iberville Parish School Board to the expediting of a parish president election in West Feliciana Parish.
State Secretary of State Tom Schedler, a Republican, praised the Supreme Court ruling, arguing that Louisiana has come a long way since its “checkered past” of racial injustices. The state is third nationally in the percentage of eligible residents who are registered to vote, he said.
Schedler said the ruling will save the state time and money each year because the state and municipalities will no longer — at least for now — have to seek approval from the U.S. Department of Justice — called “preclearance” — on every election matter.
Such approval was needed for changes to voter registration laws and other issues, ranging from the drawing up of local school board districts to congressional redistricting, the latter of which is seven years away from occurring again. But pressure will remain on drawing things up correctly to avoid expensive federal lawsuits.
“They’re going to have to do it fair from the beginning and not rely on Big Brother to tell them they’re doing it wrong,” Schedler said.
U.S. Rep. Cedric Richmond, D-New Orleans, and others called the ruling “terribly” disturbing because racial discrimination remains a real problem. He contended the current standing of Congress makes it nearly impossible to get anything done at least until after the late 2014 election cycle.
“This decision sets us back as a nation almost 50 years,” Richmond said. “The legislators at the Supreme Court took it upon themselves to disregard the will of the American people and enable these previously covered jurisdictions to impede and discourage minorities from voting in the future.”
President Barack Obama and U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder also criticized the ruling.
U.S. Rep. Steve Scalise, R-Jefferson, said he will not support any legislation that singles out Louisiana. “Let’s treat everybody the same,” he said.
“The court recognized that, not only have the times changed dramatically, but many of the states on that old list have improved dramatically and Louisiana is one,” Scalise said.
The Supreme Court case focused on Shelby County, Ala., challenging the requirement of nine mostly Southern states to acquire federal approval for any changes to voting procedures. The issue pertains to Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that was created in the aftermath of racial discrimination and voter suppression efforts that occurred in Louisiana and other states.
Chief Justice John Roberts contended the law was “keeping the focus on decades-old data relevant to decades-old problems, rather than current data reflecting current needs.”
But Justice Ruth Ginsburg sharply disagreed in the dissenting opinion. “Just as buildings in California have a greater need to be earthquake-proofed, places where there is greater racial polarization in voting have a greater need for prophylactic measures to prevent purposeful race discrimination,” she stated.
Glenn Koepp, who helped the Louisiana Senate draw district lines for elected offices, said the ruling will not lead to any sweeping changes in the state in the short term because Section 2 of the law still bars discrimination and federal lawsuits will result if there are problems.
Section 2 claims can be very expensive on a jurisdiction because if violations are found the jurisdiction must pay all attorney fees, expert fees and other court expenses on the other side, he said.
“There’s still going to be a real reason for jurisdictions to be very careful about not discriminating,” Koepp said. “The sky is not falling. There’s just a different place to enforce it. The jurisdiction has to be careful about that. They have got real reasons to continue to do it right.”
In local matters, Koepp said, the ruling means West Feliciana can move forward with the election of a parish president without the pending Justice Department approval of its parish charter change. “It’s time to call the election instead of worrying about trying to get preclearance,” he said.
Koepp said the ruling means a 2010 state law requiring the Iberville Parish School Board to be reduced from 15 to nine members can go into place now. The state law had remained in limbo without Justice approval.
In Baton Rouge, attorneys for black resident Kenneth Hall, who alleges in an eight-month-old lawsuit that Baton Rouge City Court election boundaries dilute the majority power of black voters, said the high court’s decision will not affect the Hall case.
Hall’s lawyer, Joel Porter, said the case will now focus more on the Section 2 claim. “At the end of the day, one of the judges still will have to give up their seat,” Porter said.
State Rep. Ted James, D-Baton Rouge, said he and others will fight any GOP efforts next year if bills are filed to make it harder for minorities to vote. He said he hopes Republicans support voting rights as much as they do Second Amendment rights.
“I hate the way a lot of the horrible things happening in Washington are trickling down to Louisiana,” James said.
But many of the most controversial issues focus on voter identification laws, and Louisiana has had a photo ID law in place since 1997 without any legal challenges. The exception is that in Louisiana people without identification can still vote if they sign sworn affidavits and can fill out a certain amount of personal information.
Marsha Shuler, Joe Gyan
and James Minton of
The Advocate contributed
to this report.