Shelby County v. Holder

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Shelby County v. Holder
Seal of the United States Supreme Court.svg
Argued February 27, 2013
Decided June 25, 2013
Full case name Shelby County, Alabama, Petitioner v. Eric H. Holder, Jr., Attorney General, et al.
Docket nos. 12-96
Citations 570 U.S. ___ (more)
Prior history Petition denied, 811 F. Supp. 2d 424 (D.D.C. 2011); decision affirmed, 679 F.3d 848 (D.C. Cir. 2012)
Argument Oral argument
Section 4(b) of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 is unconstitutional.
Court membership
Case opinions
Majority Roberts, joined by Scalia, Kennedy, Thomas, Alito
Concurrence Thomas
Dissent Ginsburg, joined by Breyer, Sotomayor, Kagan
Laws applied
U.S. Const. amend. XV; Voting Rights Act of 1965

Shelby County v. Holder, 570 U.S. ___ (2013), is a landmark[1][2] United States Supreme Court case regarding the constitutionality of two provisions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965: Section 5, which requires certain states and local governments to obtain federal preclearance before implementing any changes to their voting laws or practices; and Section 4(b), which contains the coverage formula that determines which jurisdictions are subjected to preclearance based on their histories of discrimination in voting.[3][4]

On June 25, 2013, the Court ruled by a 5-to-4 vote that Section 4(b) is unconstitutional because the coverage formula is based on data over 40 years old, making it no longer responsive to current needs and therefore an impermissible burden on the constitutional principles of federalism and equal sovereignty of the states.[3][4] The Court did not strike down Section 5, but without Section 4(b), no jurisdiction will be subject to Section 5 preclearance unless Congress enacts a new coverage formula.[5]


Congress enacted the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to address entrenched racial discrimination in voting, "an insidious and pervasive evil which had been perpetuated in certain parts of our country through unremitting and ingenious defiance of the Constitution."[3] Section 5 of the Act contains a "preclearance" requirement that requires certain states and local governments to obtain a determination by the United States Attorney General or a three-judge panel of the United States District Court for the District of Columbia that changes to their voting laws or practices do not "deny or abridge the right to vote on account of race, color, or membership in a language minority group", before those changes may be enforced.[6] Section 4(b) contains the coverage formula that determines which states and local governments are subject to preclearance under Section 5. The formula covers jurisdictions that, as of November 1964, November 1968, or November 1972, maintained a prohibited "test or device" as a condition of registering to vote or voting and had a voting-age population of which less than 50 percent either were registered to vote or actually voted in that year's presidential election.[7] Section 4(a) allows covered jurisdictions that have made sufficient progress in ending discriminatory voting practices to "bail out" of the preclearance requirement.[7]

The Supreme Court upheld the preclearance requirement and coverage formula as constitutional enforcement legislation under Section 2 of the Fifteenth Amendment in South Carolina v. Katzenbach (1966).[8] The preclearance requirement initially was set to expire 5 years after enactment, but amendments to the Act in 1970, 1975, and 1982 reauthorized Section 5; the 1970 and 1975 amendments also updated the coverage formula.[3][9]:571 The Supreme Court upheld these reauthorizations as constitutional in Georgia v. United States (1973),[10] City of Rome v. United States (1980),[11] and Lopez v. Monterey County (1999).[3]:5[12] In 2006, Congress reauthorized Section 5 for an additional 25 years, but it did not change the coverage formula from the 1975 version.[7]

Shortly after the 2006 reauthorization, a Texas utility district sought to bail out from Section 5 preclearance and, in the alternative, challenged the constitutionality of Section 5. The Supreme Court ruled 9-0 in Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District No. 1 v. Holder that government entities that did not register voters, such as the utility district, had the right to file suit to bail out of coverage. Because this decision resolved the issue, the Court invoked constitutional avoidance and declined to address the constitutionality of Section 5. Justice Thomas dissented from this portion of the opinion and would have declared Section 5 unconstitutional.[13]


District Court[edit]

Shelby County, in the covered jurisdiction of Alabama, sued the U.S. Attorney General in the U.S. District Court for D.C. in Washington, D.C, seeking a declaratory judgment that sections 4(b) and 5 are facially unconstitutional and a permanent injunction against their enforcement. On September 21, 2011, Judge John D. Bates upheld the provisions, finding that the evidence before Congress in 2006 was sufficient to justify reauthorizing Section 5 and continuing Section 4(b)'s coverage formula.[14]

Court of Appeals[edit]

On May 18, 2012, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit affirmed the decision of the District Court upholding the constitutionality of Section 4(b) and Section 5. After surveying the evidence in the Congressional record associated with the 2006 reauthorization of Section 5, the appellate court accepted Congress's conclusion that Section 2 litigation remained inadequate in the covered jurisdictions to protect the rights of minority voters, that Section 5 was therefore still justified, and that the coverage formula continued to pass constitutional muster.[15]

Supreme Court[edit]

The Supreme Court granted certiorari to hear the case on the limited question of "whether Congress' decision in 2006 to reauthorize Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act under the pre-existing coverage formula of Section 4(b) of the Voting Rights Act exceeded its authority under the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments and thus violated the Tenth Amendment and Article IV of the United States Constitution."[16] The Supreme Court heard oral arguments on February 27, 2013.[17] Media coverage of the Justices' comments during oral arguments portrayed the Court as appearing likely to hold Section 5 or Section 4(b) unconstitutional.[18][19] Justice Antonin Scalia drew criticism from civil rights leaders after expressing his belief during oral arguments that Congress reauthorized Section 5 not because the legislation was necessary but because it constituted a "racial entitlement" that Congress was unlikely to end.[18][19][20]

Opinion of the Supreme Court[edit]

The Supreme Court struck down Section 4(b) as unconstitutional in its June 25, 2013 ruling.[3][21] The majority opinion was delivered by Chief Justice John Roberts joined by Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy, Clarence Thomas, and Samuel Alito.[22][23][24] The Court held that Section 4(b) exceeded Congress's power to enforce the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, reasoning that the coverage formula conflicts with the constitutional principles of federalism and "equal sovereignty of the states" because the disparate treatment of the states is "based on 40 year-old facts having no logical relationship to the present day" and thus is not responsive to current needs.[3][4] The Court expressed that Congress cannot subject a state to preclearance based simply on past discrimination, and it noted that since the coverage formula was last modified in 1975, the country "has changed, and while any racial discrimination in voting is too much, Congress must ensure that the legislation it passes to remedy that problem speaks to current conditions".[3][25][26] Roberts wrote that the Act was immensely successful "at redressing racial discrimination and integrating the voting process” and noted that the USA has made great progress thanks to the Act.[22] But he added: “If Congress had started from scratch in 2006, it plainly could not have enacted the present coverage formula.”[22] The Court did not subject Section 4(b) to the "congruence and proportionality" standard of review or address whether that standard is the appropriate measure to use when determining the constitutionality of legislation passed pursuant to Section 2 of the Fifteenth Amendment.[27] The Court also noted the federalism concerns raised by the Section 5 preclearance requirement, but it did not reach the issue of whether Section 5 remains constitutional. However, because the Section 5 preclearance requirement applies only to jurisdictions covered by the Section 4(b) coverage formula, the decision rendered Section 5 inoperable unless Congress enacts a new coverage formula.[5][21][28]

Justice Thomas wrote a concurring opinion expressing his view that Section 5 is also unconstitutional for the same reasons the Court held Section 4(b) unconstitutional.[3][29]

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote a dissenting opinion that was joined by Justices Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan. The dissent would have held that Congress had sufficient evidence before it to determine that the coverage formula remained responsive to current needs. The dissent acknowledged that discrimination in voting has decreased in the covered jurisdictions since the Voting Rights Act's enactment, but it attributed much of that decrease to the Act itself, noting that "[t]hrowing out preclearance when it has worked and is continuing to work to stop discriminatory changes is like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet."[3][4][30]


The Supreme Court opinion prompted heavy media coverage of reactions from political leaders, activists, and the legal community. President Barack Obama expressed deep disappointment with the decision and called on Congress "to pass legislation to ensure every American has equal access to the polls."[31][32] Attorney General Eric Holder also expressed disappointment with the decision, and he pledged that the Department of Justice "will not hesitate to take swift enforcement action—using every legal tool that remains available to us—against any jurisdiction that seeks to take advantage of the Supreme Court's ruling by hindering eligible citizens' full and free exercise of the franchise."[33][34] On July 25, 2013, Holder announced that the Department of Justice will ask a federal court to subject the formerly covered state of Texas to preclearance under the "bail in" provision contained in Section 3 of the Voting Rights Act, which was unaffected by the Court's decision.[35][36]

When asked whether a polarized Congress could agree on a new coverage formula, Speaker John Boehner acknowledged the importance of the role of the Voting Rights Act over the previous 40 years and said that he was still reviewing the decision and trying to determine the next steps. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor expressed his hope that Congress would "put politics aside" and determine how to ensure that voting rights remain protected.[37] Representative John Lewis, a leader in the civil rights movement who was present when President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into law, said that the decision disregarded the country's history of voting discrimination and that he fears the decision will allow local election officials "to go back to another period."[38][39] Representative Bob Goodlatte, Chair of the House Judiciary Committee, said that the committee will review new voting data but that he is unsure whether the committee will take any specific action in response to the decision.[40][41] On July 18, 2013, the House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution and Civil Justice held a hearing to discuss how the House should respond to the ruling.[42]

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said that Democrats were concerned with the ruling in light of "Republicans doing everything they could to suppress voting" in the 2012 elections, and he stated that the Senate will act to address the decision.[43] Senator Bob Corker, however, said that he "cannot imagine" Congress ever agreeing on the terms of a new coverage formula.[37][44] The Senate Judiciary Committee began to hold hearings on July 17, 2013 to discuss how to respond to the decision.[41][45]

At the state level, Texas and Mississippi officials pledged within hours of the decision to enforce voter ID laws that had previously not been precleared by the Attorney General.[46] Florida Secretary of State Ken Detzner said it made no sense for five Florida counties to be subjected to preclearance based on decades-old voting rights data and that the decision will save the state money.[47] However, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo found the decision deeply troubling and called upon Congress to pass a new coverage formula.[48]

Ilya Shapiro of the Cato Institute said that the Supreme Court's decision "restore[d] the constitutional order, the status quo ante the temporary Sections 4/5, because there is no longer systemic racial disenfranchisement, or at the very least in the covered jurisdictions."[25] In contrast, Jon Greenbaum, chief counsel of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, said that because of the decision, "[m]inority voters in places with a record of discrimination are now at greater risk of being disenfranchised than they have been in decades" and that their only recourse will be to pursue expensive litigation.[49][50]


  1. ^ Kealing, Jonathan (25 June 2013). "U.S. Supreme Court strikes down key provision of Voting Rights Act". Public Radio International. Retrieved 8 July 2013. 
  2. ^ Dunkley, Gabrielle (25 June 2013). "Shelby County, Alabama v. Holder Ruling: Politicians React". The Huffington Post. Retrieved 8 July 2013. 
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Shelby County v. Holder, 570 U.S. ____ (2013)
  4. ^ a b c d "SHELBY COUNTY v. HOLDER". The Oyez Project at IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law. Retrieved 7 July 2013. 
  5. ^ a b "Amy Howe, Details on Shelby County v. Holder: In Plain English (Case 12-399)". SCOTUSblog. Retrieved June 25, 2013. 
  6. ^ "About Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act". DOJ Civil Rights Division. United States Department of Justice. Retrieved 7 July 2013. 
  7. ^ a b c "Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act". DOJ Civil Rights Division. United States Department of Justice. Retrieved 7 July 2013. 
  8. ^ South Carolina v. Katzenbach, 383 U.S. 301 (1966).
  9. ^ Issacharoff, Samuel; Karlan, Pamela S.; Pildes, Richard H. (2012). The Law of Democracy: Legal Structure of the Political Process (4th ed.). Foundation Press. ISBN 1599419351. 
  10. ^ Georgia v. United States, 411 U.S. 526 (1973).
  11. ^ Rome v. United States, 446 U.S. 156 (1980)
  12. ^ Lopez v. Monterey County, 525 U.S. 266 (1999).
  13. ^ Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District No. 1 v. Holder, 557 U.S. 193 (2009).
  14. ^ Shelby County v. Holder Judgment of the United States District Court for the District of Columbia
  15. ^ Shelby County v. Holder Judgment of the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit
  16. ^ Certiorari granted, November 9, 2012
  17. ^ Transcript of Oral Argument from Feb 27, 2013
  18. ^ a b Reilly, Ryan J. (27 Feb 2013). "Voting Rights Act Supreme Court Case: Scalia Condemns The 'Perpetuation Of Racial Entitlement'". The Huffington Post. Retrieved 13 July 2013. 
  19. ^ a b Lengell, Sean (Feb 28, 2013). "Scalia ‘racial’ comment on voting rights law draws fire". The Washington Times. Retrieved 13 July 2013. 
  20. ^ Goodwin, Liz (28 Feb 2013). "Civil rights leaders outraged over Scalia’s ‘racial entitlement’ argument". Yahoo! News. Retrieved 13 July 2013. 
  21. ^ a b Ryan J. Reilly, Mike Sacks and Sabrina Siddiqu (25 June 2013). "Voting Rights Act Section 4 Struck Down By Supreme Court". The Huffington Post. Retrieved 7 July 2013. 
  22. ^ a b c Pete Williams and Erin McClam (25 June 2013). "Supreme Court strikes down part of Voting Rights Act". NBCNews. Retrieved 27 August 2013. 
  23. ^ Von Drehle, David (2013-06-25). "High Court Rolls Back the Voting Rights Act of 1965". Time. Retrieved 2013-06-25. 
  24. ^ Barnes, Robert (25 June 2013). "Supreme Court stops use of key part of Voting Rights Act". The Washington Post. Retrieved 29 June 2013. 
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  26. ^ Cohen, Andrew (25 June 2013). "On Voting Rights, a Decision as Lamentable as Plessy or Dred Scott". The Atlantic. Retrieved 7 July 2013. 
  27. ^ Hasen, Richard (25 June 2013). "The curious disappearance of Boerne and the future jurisprudence of voting rights and race". SCOTUSblog. Retrieved 5 August 2013. 
  28. ^ "The Formula Behind the Voting Rights Act". The New York Times. 22 June 2013. Retrieved 8 July 2013. 
  29. ^ Liptak, Adam (25 June 2013). "Supreme Court Invalidates Key Part of Voting Rights Act". The New York Times. Retrieved 26 June 2013. 
  30. ^ Schwartz, John (25 June 2013). "Between the Lines of the Voting Rights Act Opinion". The New York Times. Retrieved 25 June 2013. 
  31. ^ "Voting Rights Act Section 4 Struck Down By Supreme Court". The Huffington Post. 25 June 2013. Retrieved 5 July 2013. 
  32. ^ Jackson, David (25 June 2013). "Obama 'disappointed' in court's voting rights decision". USA Today. Retrieved 5 July 2013. 
  33. ^ Reilly, Ryan (25 June 2013). "Eric Holder Warns Voting Rights Act Decision Could 'Negatively Affect Millions Of Americans'". The Huffington Post. Retrieved 5 July 2013. 
  34. ^ "Holder: Deepy disappointed in ruling". CNN. 25 June 2013. Retrieved 5 July 2013. 
  35. ^ Millhiser, Ian (27 July 2013). "Justice Department Will Ask Court To Reinstate Voting Rights Act In Texas". Retrieved 27 July 2013. 
  36. ^ Coyle, Marcia; Rugger, Todd (25 July 2013). "DOJ Messes With Texas Over VRA". The National Law Journal. Retrieved 27 July 2013. 
  37. ^ a b McAuliff, Michael (26 June 2013). "John Boehner, Republicans Show No Signs Of Fixing Voting Rights Act". The Huffington Post. Retrieved 5 July 2013. 
  38. ^ Zeleny, Jeff (25 June 2013). "John Lewis: Court’s Decision Puts ‘Dagger in Heart of Voting Rights Act’". ABC News. Retrieved 5 July 2013. 
  39. ^ Mears, Bill; Botelho, Greg (26 June 2013). "'Outrageous' or overdue?: Court strikes down part of historic voting rights law". CNN. Retrieved 5 July 2013. 
  40. ^ Killough, Ashley (30 June 2013). "Goodlatte unsure if Congress will take up Voting Rights Act". CNN. Retrieved 11 July 2013. 
  41. ^ a b Whitaker, Morgan (10 July 2013). "Senate committee moving forward on Voting Rights Act". MSNBC. Retrieved 11 July 2013. 
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  44. ^ Bendery, Jennifer (25 July 2013). "Bob Corker On Voting Rights Act: 'Cannot Imagine' Congress Restoring It". The Huffington Post. Retrieved 5 July 2013. 
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  47. ^ Klas, Mary Ellen (25 June 2013). "Court blocks application of Voting Rights Act in Florida, unless Congress updates rules". Miami Herald. Retrieved 5 July 2013. 
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External links[edit]