The Voting Rights Act was passed in 1965 to ensure state and local governments do not pass laws or policies that deny American citizens the equal right to vote based on race. On June 25, 2013, the Supreme Court swept away a key provision of this landmark civil rights law in Shelby County v. Holder.
In April 2010, Shelby County, Alabama filed suit asking a federal court in Washington, DC to declare Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act unconstitutional. Section 5 is a key part of the Voting Rights Act, requiring certain jurisdictions with a history of discrimination to submit any proposed changes in voting procedures to the U.S. Department of Justice or a federal district court in D.C. – before it goes into effect – to ensure the change would not harm minority voters. In September 2011, the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia upheld the constitutionality of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, and in May 2012, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit agreed with the district court that Section 5 was constitutional. Shelby County appealed the ruling to the Supreme Court, and the Supreme Court agreed to take the case in November 2012.
The Brennan Center filed an amicus brief on behalf of those defending Section 5, arguing that the Fifteenth Amendment was designed to give Congress the authority to protect against discrimination in voting rights, and Congress’s broad enforcement authority is entitled special deference by the Courts. Moreover, the amicus brief argues that the Fifteenth Amendment provides Congress the flexibility to address all practices which abridge the right to vote, including vote dilution.
On June 25, 2013, the Supreme Court ruled that the coverage formula in Section 4(b) of the Voting Rights Act — which determines which jurisdictions are covered by Section 5 — is unconstitutional because it is based on an old formula. As a practical matter this means that Section 5 is inoperable until Congress enacts a new coverage formula, which the decision invited Congress to do. The Brennan Center’s statement on the decision is available here.
Supreme Court Documents
- Supreme Court Decision
- Brief of Petitioner Shelby County
- Brief of Respondent United States
- Brief for Respondent-Intervenors Earl Cunningham et al.
- Brief for Respondent-Intervenors Bobby Pierson et al.
- Brief for Respondent-Intervenor Bobby Lee Harris
Amicus Briefs Filed On Behalf of Respondent and/or Respondent-Intervenors
- Brief of the Brennan Center for Justice
- Brief of Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid
- Brief for the States of New York, California, Mississippi, and North Carolina
- Brief of Professor Patricia A. Broussard, Sabrina Collins, Stacy Hane, Akunna Olumba and Named Students and Organizations of Florida A&M University College of Law
- Brief of Reps. F. James Sensenbrenner, Jr., John Conyers, Jr., Steve Chabot, Jerrold Nadler, Melvin L. Watt, and Robert C. Scott
- Brief of the Veterans of the Mississippi Civil Rights Movement
- Brief of Alabama Legislative Black Caucus and Alabama Association of Black County Officials
- Brief of American Bar Association
- Brief of Jurisdictions that Have Bailed Out
- Brief of Constitutional Law Scholars and Constitutional Accountability Center
- Brief of Dick Thornburgh, Drew S. Days, III, John R. Dunne, Bill Lann Lee, J. Stanley Pottinger, Paul F. Hancock, James P. Turner, William R. Yeomans, Brian K. Landsberg, and Gilda R. Daniels
- Brief of Gabriel Chin, Atiba Ellis, Christopher S. Elmendorf, Janai S. Nelson, Bertrall Ross, Daniel Tokaji, and Franita Tolson
- Brief of Joaquin Avila, Neil Bradley, Julius Chambers, U.S. Clemon, Armand Derfner, Jose Garza, Fred Gray, Robert McDuff, Rolando Rios, Robert Rubin, Edward Still, Ellis Turnage, and Ronald Wilson
- Brief of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights and the Leadership Conference Education Fund et al.
- Brief for Marcia Fudge, Ruben Hinojosa, and Judy Chu
- Brief of National Latino Organizations
- Brief of National Lawyers Guild
- Brief of Political Science and Law Professors
- Brief for Professors Richard Engstrom, Theodore Arrington, and David Canon
- Brief of Senator Bradley Hutto, Senator Gerald Malloy, Senator John Scott, Jr., Representative Gilda Cobb-Hunter, and the League of Women Voters of South Carolina
- Brief of the Navajo Nation, Leonard Gorman, Anthony Wounded Head, Sr., and Oliver J. Semans, Sr.
- Brief for the Alaska Federation of Natives, Alaska Native Voters and Tribes
- Brief for Asian American Public Interest Groups
- Brief for Ellen D. Katz and the Voting Rights Initiative
- Brief for Historians and Social Scientists
- Brief for the Honorable Congressman John Lewis
- Brief for National Bar Association