Comment Of Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), Chairman, Senate Judiciary Committee, On Supreme Court Decision Shelby County v. Holder

[BACKGROUND:  In a divided 5-4 decision, a narrow majority of the Supreme Court struck down the coverage formula of the Voting Rights Act, which determines which jurisdictions that have a history of discrimination require preclearance under Section 5.  The Court’s decision impacts the effectiveness of Section 5 of the landmark Voting Rights Act which provides significant protections against voting discrimination.  The Voting Rights Act, including the coverage formula and Section 5, was reauthorized and signed into law by President George W. Bush in 2006, after the Senate voted 98-0 and the House voted 390-33 in favor of the reauthorization.  In 2009, the Supreme Court upheld a challenge to the constitutional authority of Congress to reauthorize Section 5.]

Less than one week after the Senate passed a resolution honoring Civil Rights icon Congressman John Lewis, a conservative majority of the Supreme Court has effectively struck down the core of the most successful piece of civil rights legislation in this Nation’s history.  The Voting Rights Act has worked to protect the Constitution’s guarantees against racial discrimination in voting for nearly five decades, but an activist majority of the Court today acted to undo one of the most critical provisions of the Act.  In striking down the coverage formula in the Voting Rights Act, the Court has dramatically undercut Section 5’s ability to protect American voters from racial discrimination in voting.  The result is that many Americans who were protected by this law will now be vulnerable to discriminatory practices and will have much greater difficulty accessing the ballot box.

Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act has protected minorities of all races from discriminatory practices in voting for nearly 50 years, yet the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn the coverage formula effectively guts the ability of Section 5 to protect voters from discriminatory practices.  I could not disagree more with this result or the majority’s rationale.  The Voting Rights Act has been upheld five times by the Supreme Court on prior occasions, and Section 5 was reauthorized and signed into law by a Republican President in 2006 after a thorough and bipartisan process in which Congress overwhelmingly determined that the law was still vital to protecting minority voting rights and that the coverage formula determining the jurisdictions to be covered was still applicable.  Several lower court decisions in recent years have found violations of the Voting Rights Act and evidence of intentional discrimination in covered jurisdictions.  Despite this sound record, and the weight of history, a narrow majority has decided today to substitute its own judgment over the exhaustive legislative findings of Congress.  As Chairman of the Judiciary Committee, I intend to take immediate action to ensure that we will have a strong and reconstituted Voting Rights Act that protects against racial discrimination in voting.  

As we approach the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s speech at the March on Washington, it is especially compelling to remember that his dream has not yet been achieved.  We have made great progress since that time and part of the Congress’ reauthorization of Section 5 a few years ago was based on the need to preserve that progress.  Yet, I fear today’s decision will make it more difficult for racial minorities to have their right to vote fully protected.  I look forward to working with my fellow members of Congress to restore the protections that John Lewis, Martin Luther King, and Fannie Lou Hamer knew that we needed to protect racial minorities from discrimination in voting.   

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