Scalia: Renewing Voting Rights Act a ‘perpetuation of racial entitlement’

Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia.
Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia.
Charles Rex Arbogast/AP Photo/File

Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia referred to Congress’s renewal of the Voting Rights Act as the “perpetuation of racial entitlement,” during Wednesday’s Supreme Court hearing on the law—a comment that one voting-rights advocate denounced as “shocking.”

Scalia made the comment while discussing Congress’s 2006 re-authorization of the law, which was done by a vote of 99-0 in the Senate and 390-33 in the House. According to Scalia, that vote indicates political fear among lawmakers more than any actual need for the protections provided by the law. “I don’t think there is anything to gain by any senator by voting against this Act,” he said. “This is not the kind of question you can leave to Congress. They’re going to lose votes if they vote against the Voting Rights Act. Even the name is wonderful.”

Justice Sonia Sotomayor challenged Scalia’s comments, asking “Do you think Section 5 was voted for because it was a racial entitlement?” She also asked “Do you think racial discrimination has ended?”

And later, one leading voting-rights advocate was even more outraged.

“It’s a severe misreading of the law, and quite shocking that he would use that shorthand to describe a major law of the magnitude of the Voting Rights Act in such a way,” Barbara Arnwine, the president of the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law told in an interview.

“This law does not entitle anybody to anything other than the fundamental protection from racial discrimination,” Arnwine continued. “That’s all it does.”

Scalia’s comment came during a hearing in which a majority of the court appeared ready to overturn the a key provision of the law.

Justices seemed concerned that racial discrimination is no longer limited to the states covered under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. Those states include all of Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia, and parts of California, Florida, New York, North Carolina, South Dakota, Michigan, and New Hampshire. Voting laws in those areas require pre-clearance by the Justice Department.

Many of the states that have pursued voter ID laws and other suppression measures considered to be racially discriminatory in recent years are not included on that list, including Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Ohio, and Indiana.

Zachary Roth contributed reporting.