Section 1: 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.
Section 2: The Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.
As do its older companions among the three Reconstruction Amendments, the Fifteenth Amendment authorizes Congress to make laws to enforce its provisions. Congress acted almost immediately after the amendment’s adoption to protect the voting rights of black citizens through the Enforcement Act of 1870. Just six years later, however, the Supreme Court blunted that statute’s use as a practical tool to prevent Southern interference with the voting rights of blacks.
For the next eighty years, the focus of 15th Amendment law shifted to the Supreme Court as it struck down various ingenious ways, such as “grandfather clauses” and literacy tests, that states developed to continue the disenfranchisement of blacks. Not until 1957 did Congress involve itself again. Finally, in 1965, Congress used Section 2 to pass the Voting Rights Act of 1965. That statute is the most significant law passed under this section, and its constitutionality was quickly upheld in two major Supreme Court rulings in 1966.
The statute prohibits the use of any procedure or test that has the purpose or effect of abridging a citizen’s right to vote on account of race. Moreover, it requires that certain states and other political units that seek to change voting procedures must obtain pre-clearance from the Justice Department. These mechanisms, direct prohibition and pre-clearance from federal authorities, are key features of this potentially far-reaching statute. The latter requirement especially is controversial. Justice Hugo Black noted, a “federal law which assumes the power to compel the States to submit in advance any proposed legislation they have for approval by federal agents” threatens the system of structural federalism because it “approaches dangerously near to wiping the States out as useful and effective units in the government of our country.”
Section 2 is a remedial provision, similar to Section 2 of the 13th Amendment and Section 5 of the 14th Amendment. As to the last of these, the Supreme Court has held that any Congressional act must solely remedy violations by the states of the 14th Amendment and must not simply create new statutory rights to sue. Congress must show that the action by the states that the law prohibits is a violation of the 14th Amendment, as determined by Supreme Court precedent. Once such a violation is established, the law must seek to remedy that violation. The characteristics of a remedy are that it targets only the wrongdoers and the offending behavior, and is in place only as long as is needed to cure the problem. Under the 14th Amendment, that test would be met if the law targeted governmental bodies or government officials for sanction, was limited to states that engaged in the unconstitutional conduct, and applied only as long as the violation continued. The Court has coined a fancy and sonorous phrase for this requirement, calling it one of “congruence and proportionality.”
While the Court has not formally adopted the same test for Section 2 of the 15th Amendment, language from the lower courts and from the Supreme Court in the 2009 decision in Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District v. Holder suggests that this is the likely test that will be applied to laws under this section. The provisions of the Voting Rights Act originally met this test. The most controversial section of the Act, the pre-clearance provision, only applies to states or other political units, and only to those that engaged in violations of the 15th Amendment and abridged the right to vote of various racial or ethnic groups (usually blacks or citizens of Mexican ancestry). The statute was in effect only for five years and allowed a “bail-out” if a political subdivision could show that the reason it was covered by the statute (determined through a voting participation formula) was not due to any unlawful discriminatory practice.
Since then, however, the Act’s constitutionality has become more problematic. It has been re-adopted four times, the latest extension, in 2007, for 25 years. Entire states, such as Texas, continue to be subject to its restrictions. Bail-outs were rare, if they occurred at all, before 1982. Between 1982 and 2009, only 17 political units (e.g. towns or cities) out of 12,000 that are covered by the law successfully bailed out. The Justice Department consistently opposed and blocked bail-out suits.
Conditions in the states have changed since 1965. Indeed, the evils of unbalanced voting rates between whites and others are greater today in some states that are not subject to the Act’s coverage formula. All changes in election law are covered by the statute and must be shown not to have a racially discriminatory effect on voting and must receive Justice Department approval. As one frustrated Georgia Congressman tartly remarked, “If you move a polling place from the Baptist church to the Methodist church, you’ve got to go through the Justice Department.”
This was precisely the problem faced by a small water district in Texas that wanted to move the voting place for election of its board from a private house to a public school. The district was formed in 1987 and never engaged in voting discrimination in violation of the 15th Amendment. But, since Texas was covered by the Act, the district was covered, and the Justice Department opposed the district’s suit to bail out of coverage.
The Supreme Court heard the Northwest Austin case in 2009. While the justices did not reach the constitutionality of the Act, the oral argument and the opinion served strong notice that the Court was skeptical that current social and political conditions warranted a “remedy” based on a formula reflecting nearly 50-year-old evidence. At argument, Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Alito wondered why the Act had not been extended to other states where there were greater voting disparities between whites and racial and ethnic minorities than in the covered states. Such unequal treatment goes against the basic constitutional presumption of equality among the states and can only be avoided in unusual cases. The opinion noted the “federalism cost” of interference with the fundamental political decisions of states, the same concern that Justice Black had raised 40 years earlier.
Since Northwest Austin, several additional political subdivisions have been able to extricate themselves from the Act’s preclearance requirement, including the first outside the state of Virginia. Local politicians, the Justice Department, and the lower courts may have received the Court’s signal and are facilitating bail-outs as a way to avoid having the Court declare the Act unconstitutional.
The Act is an object lesson of how a problem begets a law that remains long after the events that gave rise to it are past. The Act was to be “temporary,” but such measures rarely are. It is in truth a remedy without an ill and becomes thereby part of a political spoils system.
Constituencies develop whose economic livelihood or political influence depends on the continued existence of the law and the perpetuation of the appearance of need for it. Those constituencies include the bureaucrats and lawyers in the Justice Department, but also the politicians—federal, state, and local—who can use their support for the Act as evidence of political virtue to further their own power. The political system may be unable to reform itself under such circumstances, and it remains for the courts to declare that the emperor lacks clothes.
An expert on constitutional law, Prof. Joerg W. Knipprath has been interviewed by print and broadcast media on a number of related topics ranging from recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions to presidential succession. He has written opinion pieces and articles on business and securities law as well as constitutional issues, and has focused his more recent research on the effect of judicial review on the evolution of constitutional law. He has also spoken on business law and contemporary constitutional issues before professional and community forums. Read more from Professor Knipprath at: http://www.tokenconservative.org/.
May 9, 2012