Shelby County v. Holder

PETITIONER: Shelby County, Alabama
RESPONDENT: Eric Holder, Jr. Attorney General
LOCATION: Shelby County, Alabama

DOCKET NO.: 12-96
DECIDED BY: Roberts Court (2010-2016)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit

CITATION: 570 US (2013)
GRANTED: Nov 09, 2012
ARGUED: Feb 27, 2013
DECIDED: Jun 25, 2013

Bert W. Rein - for the petitioner
Debo P. Adegbile - for the respondents Bobby Pierson, et al.
Donald B. Verrilli, Jr. - Solicitor General, Department of Justice, for the respondents

Facts of the case

The Fourteenth Amendment protects every person's right to due process of law. The Fifteenth Amendment protects citizens from having their right to vote abridged or denied due to "race, color, or previous condition of servitude." The Tenth Amendment reserves all rights not expressly granted to the federal government to the individual states. Article Four of the Constitution guarantees the right of self-government for each state.

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was enacted as a response to the nearly century-long history of voting discrimination. Section 5 prohibits eligible districts from enacting changes to their election laws and procedures without gaining official authorization. Section 4(b) defines the eligible districts as ones that had a voting test in place as of November 1, 1964 and less than 50% turnout for the 1964 presidential election. Such districts must prove to the Attorney General or a three-judge panel of a Washington, D.C. district court that the change "neither has the purpose nor will have the effect" of negatively impacting any individual's right to vote based on race or minority status. Section 5 was originally enacted for five years, but has been continually renewed since that time.

Shelby County, Alabama, filed suit in district court and sought both a declaratory judgment that Section 5 and Section 4(b) are unconstitutional and a permanent injunction against their enforcement. The district court upheld the constitutionality of the Sections and granted summary judgment for the Attorney General. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit held that Congress did not exceed its powers by reauthorizing Section 5 and that Section 4(b) is still relevant to the issue of voting discrimination.


Does the renewal of Section 5 of the Voter Rights Act under the constraints of Section 4(b) exceed Congress' authority under the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, and therefore violate the Tenth Amendment and Article Four of the Constitution?

Media for Shelby County v. Holder

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - June 25, 2013 (Part 1) in Shelby County v. Holder
Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - February 27, 2013 in Shelby County v. Holder

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - June 25, 2013 (Part 2) in Shelby County v. Holder

Ruth Bader Ginsburg:

The majority and the dissenters agree on two points.

First, race-based voting discrimination still exist, no one does that.

Second, the Voting Rights Act addresses an extraordinary problem, a mere century of disregard for the dictates of the Fifteenth Amendment and Congress has taken extraordinary measures to meet the problem.

Beyond those two points the Court divides sharply.

Congress failed to redo the coverage formula the Court holds -- the Court holds that that renders inoperative, the preclearance remedy of Section 5.

Section 5 cannot operate without the formula.

Section 5 is the provision far more effective than any other in securing minority voting rights and stopping backsliding.

Justices Breyer, Sotomayor, Kagan, and I are of the view that Congress's decision to renew the Act and keep the coverage formula was in all together rational means to serve the end of achieving what was once the subject of a dream, the equal citizenship stature of all in our polity, a voice to every voter in our democracy undiluted by race.

Most fundamentally, we see the issue as a “who decides” question.

In this regard we note that the very First Amendment to our constitution exhibits a certain suspicion of Congress.

It instructs Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech or of the press.

The Civil War Amendments are of a distinctly different thrust as the Fifteenth Amendment instructs that the right to vote shall not be denied or abridged on account of race and it vests in Congress as to the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments how to enforce the guaranteed right by appropriate legislation.

As the standard setting decision South Carolina v. Katzenbach puts it as against the reserved powers of states, Congress may use any rational means to effectuate the constitutional prohibition of race discrimination in voting.

Congress sought to do just that in 1965, when it initially passed the Voting Rights Act and in each reauthorization including the most recent one.

Indeed, the 2006 Reauthorization was the product of the most earnest consideration.

Over a span of more than 20 months, the House and Senate Judiciary Committees held 21 hearings heard from scores of witnesses, received numerous investigative reports and other documentation showing that serious and widespread intentional discrimination persist in covered jurisdictions.

In all, the legislative records filled more than 15,000 pages, Representative Sensen Brenner, then the Chair of the House Judiciary Committee, described the record supporting the authorization as one of the most extensive considerations of any piece of legislation that the United States Congress had dealt with in the 27 and a half years he had served in the House.

The Reauthorization passed the House by a vote of 390-to-33.

The vote in the Senate was 98-to-0.

President Bush signed the reauthorization a week after he received it, noting the need for further work in the fight against injustice and calling the extension an example of our continued commitment to a united America where every person is treated with dignity and respect.

Why was Congress intent on renewing Section 5 particularly?

As the Chief Justice explained, Section 5 requires cover jurisdictions to obtain preclearance before making changes in voting laws that might introduce new methods of voting discrimination.

Congress found, first of all, that Section 5 had been enormously successful in increasing minority registration and access to the ballot.

But it also learned how essential Section 5 was to prevent a return to old ways.

In 1995, for example, the State of Mississippi was stopped by Section 5 from bringing back to its Jim Crow era to voter registration system.

And in 2006, Texas was stopped from curtailing early voting in a predominantly Latino District in defiance of this Court's order to reinstate the District after Texas tried to eliminate it.

Congress confronted similar examples of discrimination in covered jurisdictions by this score.

Of signal importance Congress found that as registration and voting by minority citizens impressively increased, other barriers sprang up to replace the tests and devices that once impeded access to the ballot.

The second generation barriers included racial gerrymandering, switching from district by district voting to at-large voting, discriminatory annexations, methods more subtle than the visible methods used in 1965 but serving effectively to diminish a minority community's ability to exercise clout in the electoral process.

Congress retained Section 5 to put down the second generation barriers before they got off the ground.