In a 5-4 ruling, the Supreme Court this morning ruled that Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act is unconstitutional. The ruling was written by Chief Justice John Roberts, a long-time VRA critic, with Justices Ginsburg, Breyer Sotomayor, and Kagan dissenting. More soon.
Second Update: The court majority rejected Section 4 on the grounds that it was based on a legitimate formula in 1966, but that formula can no longer be used today. Apparently, these five justices believe institutional racism and systemic discrimination in voting rights have effectively vanished to their satisfaction.
Third Update: The decision draws a distinction, saying it's striking down Section 4, not Section 5, but since the former provides the coverage formula for the latter, it looks like the issue will return to Congress to write a new formula.
Fourth Update: Justice Thomas, true to form, explains he wanted to go ahead and strike down Section 5 altogether, rather than leaving it to Congress to fix. To his mind, there is no adequate formula.
Fifth Update: Good write-ups from NBC News' Pete Williams and Erin McClam, as well as the AP. The key detail: "The court did not strike down the advance approval requirement of the law that has been used, mainly in the South, to open up polling places to minority voters in the nearly half century since it was first enacted in 1965. But the justices did say lawmakers must update the formula for determining which parts of the country must seek Washington's approval, in advance, for election changes." Raise your hand if you have confidence in this Congress' ability to do that fairly and effectively.
Sixth Update: So, just to clarify, the principle of pre-clearance is intact, but for voting-rights advocates, that's cold comfort, since the standards that provide the foundation for those principles has been struck down as unconstitutional. Section 5 is, in other words, in semi-permanent limbo, awaiting Congress' eventual attention.
Seventh Update: msnbc's Chris Hayes described the decision as "one of the most stunning exercises in 'judicial activism' ever," and it's an important point. While "judicial activism" is generally an unfortunate euphemism used by ideologues to mean "rulings I don't like," in this case, it has real merit. The people's elected representatives in Congress approved the Voting Rights Act, then re-approved it on three separate occasions, each with large bipartisan majorities. It's received the support of several presidents, also elected by the people, from both parties. This morning, five justices effectively declared, "The principles are legally sound, but we don't like where you're applying those principles." This really isn't what the federal judiciary is supposed to do, vetoing parts of laws they deem ideologically unsatisfying.
Final Update: President Obama issued a statement responding to the ruling: "I am deeply disappointed with the Supreme Court's decision today. For nearly 50 years, the Voting Rights Act – enacted and repeatedly renewed by wide bipartisan majorities in Congress – has helped secure the right to vote for millions of Americans. Today's decision invalidating one of its core provisions upsets decades of well-established practices that help make sure voting is fair, especially in places where voting discrimination has been historically prevalent. As a nation, we've made a great deal of progress towards guaranteeing every American the right to vote. But, as the Supreme Court recognized, voting discrimination still exists. And while today's decision is a setback, it doesn't represent the end of our efforts to end voting discrimination. I am calling on Congress to pass legislation to ensure every American has equal access to the polls. My Administration will continue to do everything in its power to ensure a fair and equal voting process."
Will Congress heed the call? The odds are not good.