Right-wing media marked the Supreme Court's devastating Shelby County v. Holder decision by ignoring, trivializing, and downright misrepresenting its dire consequences for one of the most effective civil rights laws of all time, as well as for millions of American voters.
Tossing aside history, legal precedent, and congressional intent, the conservative bloc of the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act (VRA) of 1965 in Shelby County, a sharply split 5-4 opinion by Chief Justice John Roberts. In a twisted reading of this crown jewel of civil rights law, the conservative majority invalidated the provision within the VRA that prevents states and local jurisdictions from enacting racially discriminatory election practices, reasoning that this vital protection against voter suppression is instead an impermissible restriction on the highly dubious "equal sovereignty" of southern states.
Rather than acknowledge the documented voter suppression that the VRA has effectively and consistently kept at bay from the voting rights struggles of the civil rights era through the 2012 elections, right-wing media are echoing the Supreme Court's blow to the VRA, misrepresenting Shelby County as something other than an attack on the American right to vote.
Fox News host Jon Scott, in a Happening Now segment leading off Fox's coverage of the decision, chose to trivialize and confuse the radical decision as “the president took another shot you might say, a bit of a smackdown” by the Supreme Court. The consequences stretch much further than that.
Contrary to this horserace description, the VRA has never been a political manifestation of the executive. The VRA is rather Congress' chosen bipartisan method to effectuate the right to vote in the Fifteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, repeatedly updated and reauthorized because of incessant and ongoing voter suppression, and upheld as constitutional four separate times by the Supreme Court.
Nevertheless, later in the day, Fox News senior legal analyst Andrew Napolitano continued in the vein of his colleague by astonishingly asserting “nobody is seriously claiming today...that there is systematic efforts on the part of the government in the south to keep people of color from voting.”
Instead, right-wing media figures like Rush Limbaugh chose to tout the decision as a victory against people who allegedly discriminate against whites, such as the “civil rights community” that wants “perpetual discrimination.”
National Review Online turned to “voter fraud” mythmaker John Fund who made the stunning claim that Shelby County was “actually a victory for civil rights” that only “overturn[ed] a small part” of the VRA. From the NRO:
The Supreme Court's decision today to overturn a small part of the 1965 Voting Rights Act is actually a victory for civil rights. As the court noted, what made sense both in moral and practical terms almost a half century ago has to be approached anew.
Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act forced states that had poor minority registration or turnout numbers in the 1960s to remain in a permanent penalty box from which they were forced to seek Justice Department approval for the most basic of election-law decisions. Its consideration of state requests for election changes was often arbitrary and partisan, as witnessed by the recent smackdown that the DOJ got from a federal court when it tried to block South Carolina's voter ID law.
The rest of the Voting Rights Act remains in place and will be used to ensure minority voting rights.
Fund's description of both the decision and the law is not only inaccurate, it's ridiculous.
The Voting Rights Act was passed by Congress and signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson in the wake of the bloody attack on voting rights supporters in Selma, Alabama. Because of the repeated and incorrigible voting suppression by states in the south, the Voting Rights Act has a provision - Section 5 - that requires states with a demonstrated history of infringing on voting rights to “preclear” any election changes with the Department of Justice. Although the covered states were originally those that practiced Jim Crow, another provision - Section 4 - contained a flexible formula that allowed these states to “bail out” if they stopped illegally discriminating and could “bail in” new states that suppressed the vote.
Working in tandem, these sections have been extremely effective at preventing voting changes that have an unconstitutional effect of voters of color. They have been repeatedly upheld by the Supreme Court and have been consistently updated and reauthorized by overwhelming bipartisan majorities in Congress, most recently in 2006, because of continued and entrenched voter suppression. In fact, not only has the Department of Justice not suffered "smackdown[s]" in its application of its preclearance powers, as falsely claimed by Fund, it has successfully prevented more than 700 illegal attempts at voter suppression since 1982 and its ability to stop similar racial discrimination during the 2012 election cycle was upheld by both conservative and liberal justices.
The right-wing narrative of an inconsequential decision is therefore completely upside down. Sections 4 and 5 are no more a “small part” of the VRA than the equal protection clause is a “small part” of the Fourteenth Amendment. As even Napolitano admitted on Fox Business' Varney & Co., the conservatives in Shelby County have struck down the very “core” of the VRA by invalidating Section 4.
Sadly, the damaging results of Shelby County to fair elections and the American right to vote will be predictable, especially given right-wing media's insistence on pushing the Republican Party's unending efforts at enacting voter ID laws. These laws, rather than “fix” a problem of in-person voter fraud that is "virtually non-existent," instead have been recognized - both intentionally and unintentionally - as blatant forms of voter suppression. After the decision was announced, Texas lost no time in announcing that its racially discriminatory voter ID law, previously blocked by Section 5, is now a requirement.
Thanks to Shelby County, the floodgates for these racially discriminatory laws will now be open and the right to vote for millions of Americans will be at risk in a way that hasn't been seen since Rep. John Lewis (D-GA) and the many other heroes of the civil rights era awoke the conscience of the country to this "deadly wrong," half a century ago. ABC News interviewed a “shocked, dismayed, disappointed” Lewis shortly after Shelby County was announced. From the interview:
“What the Supreme Court did was to put a dagger in the heart of the Voting Rights Act of 1965,” Lewis told ABC News. “This act helped liberate not just a people but a nation.”
Lewis, 73, who is among the last living leaders of the civil rights movement, called the decision “a very sad moment” for the nation. He stood in his congressional office, surrounded by black-and-white photographs from a bygone era and watched with ABC News as the Supreme Court released its ruling.
“I'm in disbelief that members of the Supreme Court would take this position,” Lewis said.
“President Barack Obama wouldn't be the president of the United States if it hadn't been for the Voting Rights Act of 1965, so we have made progress,” Lewis said, but he feared that a weakened Voting Rights Act would allow local election officials "to go back to another period.
“We don't want to go back. I'm shocked, dismayed, disappointed. I take it very personally,” Lewis said. “I gave a little blood on that bridge for the right to vote, for the right to participate in a Democratic process.”