The Supreme Court made it substantially easier for many local governments to escape the requirements of the Voting Rights Act to obtain permission from the Justice Department or a federal court for any changes in voting or election procedures. In an 8-1 decision, however, the court left the so-called preclearance requirement on the books, rejecting arguments by a small utility district in Texas that the law is an unconstitutional intrusion on state and local governments.
The ruling in Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District v. Holder was an anticlimactic end to a major constitutional challenge to a law that Congress re-enacted only three years ago and extended for another 25 years. Many Supreme Court watchers had expected the court’s conservative majority to strike the law down.
Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. wrote the majority opinion. He acknowledged the arguments against the law, but said that expanding the availability of the law’s “bailout provision” was an adequate remedy. In a lone, partial dissent, Justice Clarence argued that the utility district was entitled to a ruling on the main issue and concluded that the act’s intrusion on state and local governments exceeded Congress’s power to enforce voting rights under the post-Civil War Fifteenth Amendment.