10 Essential Supreme Court Cases of Ruth Bader Ginsburg


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Shelby County v. Holder, 2013
Georgia Democratic Representative John Lewis speaks during a rally as fellow democrats Judy Chu, James Clyburn and Nancy Pelosi listen in front of the U.S. Capitol in July 2015 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act. Alex Wong/Getty Images

Congress enacted the Voting Rights Act (VRA) in 1965 "to banish the blight of racial discrimination in voting. Until President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the piece of federal legislation at the height of the civil rights movement, racial discrimination was rampant in voting. Certain sections of the Act created rules meant to protect it from changes down the road.

Section 4b, for example, established a formula to identify areas of the country where racial discrimination had been most prevalent and to provide stricter provisions in those areas. These "tests or devices" included voting prerequisites like literacy tests. Under Section 5 of the Act, jurisdictions were required to seek approval by the attorney general or a three-judge D.C. panel before making any changes to voting practices. Known as a "preclearance," this feature of the Act was meant to ensure that any change "did not have the purpose and will not have the effect of denying or abridging the right to vote on account of race or color" [sources: DOJ, DOJ].

While Section 5 was initially set to expire after five years, the Act was reauthorized several times over the decades. Alabama's Shelby County challenged its constitutionality in 2013 based on the "tests and devices" and "preclearance" requirements. The claim was that the sections exceeded Congress's power to enforce the 14th ("equal protection of the laws") and 15th Amendments (the "right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude"), and violated the Constitution itself [sources: LLI, LOC].

According to the Supreme Court 5-4 majority opinion, section 4 was in fact deemed unconstitutional because it imposed burdens that no longer made sense in the modern era and represented an unconstitutional violation of the power to regulate elections (which are supposed to be governed by the states themselves).

In another major dissent, Ginsburg argued that the amendments support Congress' authority to enact legislation specifically targeting potential state abuses as long as Congress demonstrates that the means taken rationally advance a legitimate objective, like the VRA. In typical RBG eloquence, she wrote, "throwing out preclearance when it has worked and is continuing to work to stop discriminatory changes is like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet" [sources: Supreme Court, Oyez].

Ginsburg wasn't alone in her opinion. President Barack Obama expressed deep disappointment with the decision, as did many other leaders in politics and law. Since the ruling, several states that were once covered under preclearance have passed laws to remove provisions like online voting registration and early voting. Five years after the ruling, nearly a thousand polling places have been shut down, many of which were located in predominantly African-American counties [sources: White House, Vasilogambros, Newkirk].

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