WASHINGTON, DC — There were audible gasps in the Supreme Court’s lawyers’ lounge, where audio of the oral argument is pumped in for members of the Supreme Court bar, when Justice Antonin Scalia offered his assessment of a key provision of the Voting Rights Act. He called it a “perpetuation of racial entitlement.”
The comment came as part of a larger riff on a comment Scalia made the last time the landmark voting law was before the justices. Noting the fact that the Voting Rights Act reauthorization passed 98–0 when it was before the Senate in 2006, Scalia claimed four years ago that this unopposed vote actually undermines the law: “The Israeli supreme court, the Sanhedrin, used to have a rule that if the death penalty was pronounced unanimously, it was invalid, because there must be something wrong there.”
That was an unusual comment when it was made, but Scalia’s expansion on it today raises concerns that his suspicion of the Act is rooted much more in racial resentment than in a general distrust of unanimous votes. Scalia noted when the Voting Rights Act was first enacted in 1965, it passed over 19 dissenters. In subsequent reauthorizations, the number of dissenters diminished, until it passed the Senate without dissent seven years ago. Scalia’s comments suggested that this occurred, not because of a growing national consensus that racial disenfranchisement is unacceptable, but because lawmakers are too afraid to be tarred as racists. His inflammatory claim that the Voting Rights Act is a “perpetuation of racial entitlement” came close to the end of a long statement on why he found a landmark law preventing race discrimination in voting to be suspicious.
It should be noted that even one of Scalia’s fellow justices felt the need to call out his remark. Justice Sotomayor asked the attorney challenging the Voting Right Act whether he thought voting rights are a racial entitlement as soon as he took the podium for rebuttal.
A transcript of the oral argument will be available soon, and we will post Scalia’s quote in its full context. We will also post audio of Scalia’s words when they become available.
The transcript of the oral argument is now available. Scalia’s full statement is copied below the fold:
JUSTICE SCALIA: Well, maybe it was making that judgment, Mr. Verrilli. But that’s — that’s a problem that I have. This Court doesn’t like to get involved in — in racial questions such as this one. It’s something that can be left — left to Congress.
The problem here, however, is suggested by the comment I made earlier, that the initial enactment of this legislation in a — in a time when the need for it was so much more abundantly clear was — in the Senate, there — it was double-digits against it. And that was only a 5-year term.
Then, it is reenacted 5 years later, again for a 5-year term. Double-digits against it in the Senate. Then it was reenacted for 7 years. Single digits against it. Then enacted for 25 years, 8 Senate votes against it. And this last enactment, not a single vote in the Senate against it. And the House is pretty much the same. Now, I don’t think that’s attributable to the fact that it is so much clearer now that we need this. I think it is attributable, very likely attributable, to a phenomenon that is called perpetuation of racial entitlement. It’s been written about. Whenever a society adopts racial entitlements, it is very difficult to get out of them through the normal political processes.
I don’t think there is anything to be gained by any Senator to vote against continuation of this act. And I am fairly confident it will be reenacted in perpetuity unless — unless a court can say it does not comport with the Constitution. You have to show, when you are treating different States differently, that there’s a good reason for it.
That’s the — that’s the concern that those of us who — who have some questions about this statute have. It’s — it’s a concern that this is not the kind of a question you can leave to Congress. There are certain districts in the House that are black districts by law just about now. And even the Virginia Senators, they have no interest in voting against this. The State government is not their government, and they are going to lose — they are going to lose votes if they do not reenact the Voting Rights Act.
Even the name of it is wonderful: The Voting Rights Act. Who is going to vote against that in the future?