Aug. 6, 1965, was one of America’s proudest moments. President Lyndon Johnson stood in the Capitol rotunda and addressed members of Congress, the Cabinet and other dignitaries about an hour before he signed the historic Voting Rights Act.
“Today is a triumph for freedom, as huge as any victory that`s been won on any battlefield,” he said at the time. “Yet to seize the meaning of this day, we must recall darker times. Three and a half centuries ago, the first Negros arrived at Jamestown … They came in darkness, and they came in chains. And today, we strike away the last major shackle of those fierce and ancient bonds …”
Last week, that triumphant moment was swatted away by five callous men who comprise the U.S. Supreme Court majority when they rendered arguably the most reprehensible decision in American judicial history.
Specifically, they invalidated the act’s Section 4 which specified jurisdictions subject to federal pre-clearance requirements for changes in voting procedures that were outlined in Section 5. Section 5 mandated these requirements where patterns of discrimination existed. But section 4’s invalidation renders section 5 toothless and a toothless Section 5 leaves the act without a core. The justices, therefore, have blown the Voting Rights Act to smithereens. In disemboweling it, they’ve unwound decades of democratic progress and maligned what we pledge allegiance to — a republic with liberty and justice for all.
“Our country has changed,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote for the court’s majority, ruling that because percentages of minority voting in affected jurisdictions have increased, Section 4’s mandate is unconstitutional. That ruling prevents the Justice Department from blocking restrictive voting laws that are designed to reduce voter turnout in heavily minority districts.
Roberts’ history evinces strong voting rights opposition. As an attorney in the Reagan administration, he pushed for weakening the 1965 law. Huffington Post’s editorial director Howard Fineman calls Roberts “the shrewdest, most manipulative and radical politician in this city ... (who) assured the nation during his 2005 confirmation hearing that he would be an umpire of constitutional law, but instead he has become the cleanup hitter, manager and team owner.”
That last week’s decision definitively conflicts with the Constitution is as clear as its 15th Amendment text: “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude. The Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.” The language is unambiguous. It’s notable that one year earlier Roberts opined that courts must presume an act of Congress is constitutional “unless the lack of constitutional authority ... is clearly demonstrated.”
Congress exercised its enforcement responsibility when it enacted the Voting Rights Act. After 21 hearings with more than 90 witnesses and a 15,000-page record, it renewed the law in 2006 with overwhelming bipartisan vote margins: 390-33 in the House and 98-0 in the Senate.
Exactly 237 years ago, our founders signed the Declaration of Independence, inveighing against despotic abuses and usurpations designed to reduce certain unalienable rights including life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. The 15th Amendment does not authorize the Supreme Court to abridge citizens’ voting rights. Yet, their official positions notwithstanding, Roberts and his group of right-wing ideologues dressed in their black robes of judicial passivity have violated the letter and spirit of the Constitution. Their decision clears the path for that abridgment of the right to vote, which was developed, expanded and nurtured over centuries.
There is no appeal from the insidious travesty that the five justices ordered. Bottom line, a tiny quintet has perpetrated a tyranny that overturned the will of Congress. It’s a grand usurpation and a shameful abuse of power that Congress must attempt to redress.
As a senator, Lyndon Johnson had told us, “This right to vote is the basic right without which all others are meaningless. It gives people … as individuals control over their own destinies.”
In his 1965 speech, he declared that the Voting Rights Act’s only purpose was to right a clear and simple wrong. “Millions of Americans are denied the right to vote because of their color,” he said. “This law will ensure them the right to vote. The wrong is one which no American, in his heart, can justify. The right is one which no American, true to our principles, can deny.” Today’s tragedy is that the Roberts Court has now justified the wrong and denied the right. In so doing, it has eviscerated another element of American exceptionalism.