WASHINGTON, DC — The Voting Rights Act did not have a very good day today. Chief Justice John Roberts suggested that a key provision of the law is rooted in the idea that “citizens in the South are more racist than citizens in the North.” Justice Antonin Scalia accomplished the unusual task of making Roberts look like a moderate by labeling the law a “perpetuation of racial entitlement.” Justice Anthony Kennedy, whose undeserved reputation as a moderate leads Court-watchers to pay particularly close attention to his questions, compared a landmark voting rights provision to the Marshall Plan as an example of a good idea that has now run its course.
Nothing, of course, is certain after an oral argument. Arguments in the Affordable Care Act case did not go well for the law or the Constitution, but Roberts ultimately blinked and voted to uphold the lion’s share of the law. When the same provision of the Voting Right Act — the provision requiring some parts of the country to “pre-clear” new voting laws with the Justice Department or a federal court before they take effect — was before the justices four years ago, that argument did not go very well either. Yet the justices ultimately upheld the law, albeit under circumstances suggesting another shoe would drop soon.
Though the shoe seems likely to drop this term, the four Democratic appointees made it clear they would not allow it to fall lightly. Justice Sonia Sotomayor was a star today, demonstrating a masterful understanding of the record and of the history of voter suppression in the South. When Scalia uttered his offensive claim that the law is a racial entitlement program, Sotomayor placed the lawyer challenging voting rights in the uncomfortable position of having to explain whether he agreed or disagreed with Scalia. With an assist from Justice Elena Kagan, Sotomayor pointed out that the plaintiff in this case, Shelby County, Alabama, “may be the wrong party bringing this” because of their dismal past record on voting rights. Alabama as a whole ranks as one of the worst offenders of federal voting rights laws in the country, and thus, as Kagan pointed out, should be subject to additional review of its voting laws “under any formula that Congress could devise.”
Sotomayor also asked the best question of the morning: why should Shelby County be allowed to bring this lawsuit as what is known as a “facial challenge,” instead of a much more limited “as-applied” challenge. A facial challenge is a broad lawsuit claiming that a law must utterly cease to exist and can never be applied to anyone. As Sotomayor pointed out, they are also disfavored under current law (or, a least, that Supreme Court likes to say they are disfavored). Generally, the Supreme Court claims to prefer narrower “as-applied” challenges that claim a law is invalid with respect to a specific plaintiff, but that it may still lawfully be applied to many other parties.
When individual voters bring lawsuits claiming disenfranchisement, the Roberts Court has wielded this distinction between facial and as-applied challenges to devastating effect. Most significantly, in Crawford v. Marion County Election Board, a plurality of the Court established that challenges to voter ID, a common voter suppression law, can only be brought on an as-applied basis. The upside of this is that each voter who feels they may be disenfranchised by the law has to hire a lawyer, go to court, and sue for the right to vote. And if they win, their victory applies only to them, not to the potentially hundreds of thousands of other voters who could be disenfranchised by voter ID.
What’s good for the goose should be good for the gander. If a voter disenfranchisement scheme that is popular with conservatives can only be subject to narrow, plaintiff-specific challenges, than the same rule should apply when a landmark voting rights law is challenged by conservatives. There was little doubt after oral argument today, however, that at least four of the Court’s conservatives do not see it that way.
The thin ray of hope is Justice Kennedy. Although Kennedy’s comments were largely hostile to the law, he did at one point join into the more progressive justices’ questions about whether Shelby County can try to destroy this law entirely — “if you would be covered under any formula, why are you injured under this one?” Kennedy asked the lawyer for Shelby County at one point. Suggesting either that he could ultimately agree with Sotomayor, or at least that he does not think that Shelby County is the right plaintiff to bring this case.
Nevertheless, if Kennedy does not agree with Sotomayor — or at least to put off the fate of the law until a future date — it will mean that there is one rule that applies to individual voters, and another, more favorable rule that applies to people who oppose voting rights.