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Shelby County v Holder 2013

Shelby County v Holder [2013] 570 US 529 is a significant US Supreme Court case concerning the constitutionality of Sections 4 and 5 of the Voting Rights Act 1965. This case had a major impact on voting rights in the United States, particularly with regard to the enforcement of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.


The case originated in Shelby County, Alabama, which had a history of racial discrimination in voting. Under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, certain jurisdictions with a history of voting discrimination were required to obtain federal preclearance before making changes to their voting laws or practices. This preclearance process was intended to prevent discriminatory voting changes.


Section 5 required certain states and local jurisdictions, primarily in the Southern states, to undergo a process known as preclearance before implementing any changes to their voting laws or practices. This process involved obtaining approval from either the US Attorney General or a three-judge panel of the US District Court for the District of Columbia.


The purpose of Section 5 was to prevent these jurisdictions from implementing changes that could potentially discriminate against minority voters, particularly African Americans who had historically faced voting discrimination. Preclearance required these jurisdictions to demonstrate that proposed voting changes, such as redistricting, changes in polling locations, or alterations to registration requirements, would not have a discriminatory impact on minority voters.


Shelby County, Alabama, brought a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of Section 5, specifically the formula under Section 4 used to determine which jurisdictions were subject to preclearance. Shelby County argued that the formula was outdated and that it unfairly subjected some jurisdictions to federal oversight based on historical discrimination that was no longer relevant.


The formula covered 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. These tests or devices were often used to disenfranchise minority voters, particularly African Americans. Common examples included literacy tests and other discriminatory requirements.


In addition to the presence of prohibited tests or devices, the formula also looked at voter turnout. It covered jurisdictions where less than 50 percent of the voting-age population either were registered to vote or actually voted in the presidential elections held in those specific years.


In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court ruled in favour of Shelby County, holding that the coverage formula in Section 4 was unconstitutional. Chief Justice John Roberts, writing for the majority, argued that the formula was based on outdated data and violated the principle of equal sovereignty among states.


The ruling effectively invalidated the preclearance requirement in Section 5, rendering it inoperable unless Congress could come up with a new coverage formula that met the Supreme Court's criteria. This decision had significant implications for voting rights enforcement, particularly in states with a history of racial discrimination in voting.


The Supreme Court's decision sparked debates and concerns about the future of voting rights in the United States, racial discrimination in the voting system, and the balance between federal oversight and state autonomy in election matters. In particular, some critics argued that it opened the door to potential voter suppression efforts in states that were previously subject to preclearance.

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