The U.S. Supreme Court closed out its 2012-2013 term last week, and as predicted, it handed down blockbuster decisions on the Voting Rights Act and gay marriage in its final days.
The week started with the Court issuing a ruling in Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin, which challenged the consideration of race as a factor during the undergraduate admissions process. Rather than issuing a decisive opinion on the subject, Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing for a seven-justice majority, remanded the case back to the circuit court, with instructions that the court reconsider the case and apply “strict scrutiny” to the university’s admissions policy — upholding it only if it is narrowly tailored to meet a compelling governmental interest.
If Monday’s “big” decision was a bit of a dud, Tuesday didn’t disappoint, with the Court issuing its holding in Shelby County v. Holder. Writing for a slim five-justice majority, Chief Justice John Roberts ruled that Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act, which requires that certain states and jurisdictions must seek “preclearance” from the U.S. Justice Department before they can make any changes to voting laws and procedures, was unconstitutional.
Congress had passed Section 4 in 1965 in order to combat what it perceived to be the ongoing and pernicious violation of minority voting rights in certain parts of the country (mostly the South, but also Alaska, Hawaii, Arizona, and parts of other States). It developed a formula for which jurisdictions would be covered — which it modified in 1970 and again in 1975 — based on minority voter registration data. Chief Justice Roberts contended that by relying on old data, Congress was putting extra burdens on some jurisdictions without justification, violating the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, in her dissent, countered that jurisdictions could — and have — proven that they are free from discrimination and can opt out of the preclearance requirement. Other jurisdictions that are demonstrated to have discriminatory practices can be added in by the courts. This, she argued, kept the coverage list of Section 4 relevant to modern times, even if the original formula is almost 40 years old.
The Court wrapped up the formal part of its 2012-13 term on Wednesday (the term officially ends on the first Monday in October), with the announcement of its decision on two cases dealing with gay marriage. In the first, United States v. Windsor, Justice Kennedy, writing for a five-justice majority, struck down Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act, which denied Federal marriage benefits to State-recognized same-sex marriages.
In his decision, Kennedy wrote that “interference with the equal dignity of same-sex marriages, a dignity conferred by the States in the exercise of their sovereign power, was more than an incidental effect of the federal statute. It was its essence.” Justice Antonin Scalia, in his dissent, countered: “We have no power to decide this case. And even if we did, we have no power under the Constitution to invalidate this democratically adopted legislation.”
The second gay-marriage case, Hollingsworth v. Perry, dealt with California’s Proposition 8, a State referendum that banned recognition of same-sex marriages. Chief Justice Roberts, writing for a seven-justice majority, ruled that the Petitioners did not have standing to defend the measure in court after it was struck down by a district court and the State of California declined to pursue further legal action.
Oftentimes, the impact of major Supreme Court opinions comes slowly, over the course of months or years. Such was not the case last week, however. With the Perry decision, California moved quickly to once again issue same-sex marriage certificates. In Windsor, the Federal government has already begun issuing guidelines for how same-sex couples can receive Federal benefits and rights. And in Shelby County, the Court’s decision opens the way for implementation of a number of changes to voting procedures that had previously been held up by preclearance reviews, such as voter ID laws in Texas and Mississippi and an illegal voter identification program in Florida. Other States seem poised to make changes to early voting hours and same-day voter registration programs.
To learn more about the Windsor and Fisher cases, you can consult the Supreme Court Debates issues in which they were the topic of focus. Shelby County will be covered extensively in the first issue after the summer break.