A tiny utility district from Texas prevailed this week in its case before the Supreme Court. But there were bigger winners: Congress, whose decision to reauthorize a critical section of the Voting Rights Act was left intact by appropriately respectful justices; and civil rights, which continue to depend on strong enforcement of this law.
An 8-1 majority sidestepped a constitutional challenge to the Voting Rights Act's Section 5, which mandates that certain states or jurisdictions with a history of racial discrimination preclear with the Justice Department or a D.C. federal court any changes to voting procedures. Texas is one of the designated states, and every political entity within the jurisdiction is subject to the preclearance provision. The Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District No. 1 chafed at the requirement and sued to be allowed to "bail out" of the provision; the utility district also argued that the justices should strike down Section 5 altogether as an inappropriate, outmoded and expansive federal intrusion into state sovereignty.
Oral arguments in April were dominated by the constitutional question and led some of the more conservative justices to voice skepticism about whether Section 5 was even needed in light of the election of the first African-American president and the growing ranks of minority lawmakers. This week's majority opinion by Chief Justice John Roberts reiterates some of these concerns. "The act's preclearance requirements … raise serious constitutional questions," Roberts wrote. Yet he and seven colleagues — Justice Clarence Thomas was the only dissenter — rightly concluded that Congress deserved great deference when it decided in 2006 to extend Section 5 for another 25 years. Indeed, the chief justice properly credited Congress for amassing "a sizeable record" supporting the continuing need for federal supervision. The justices ultimately ruled that they did not need to reach the constitutional question because the case could be resolved through a more narrow, statutory approach that would give the Austin utility district the right to spring loose from the federal voting rights yoke.
In refusing to disturb the carefully considered judgment of lawmakers, the justices rendered a decision far less dramatic than anticipated. In doing so, they also bolstered the legitimacy of their own institutional roles.