In 2013, a 5-4 Supreme Court decision written by Chief Justice John Roberts eviscerated the 1965 Voting Rights Act. In Shelby County v. Holder, the court struck down the most crucial enforcement mechanism in the most important civil rights statute since Reconstruction. How did we get here? A major New York Times Magazine story by Jim Rutenberg provides an invaluable history of the long battle conservatives have fought against the law. And it shouldn’t be surprising that one major player in this movement was John Roberts himself. It’s important to emphasize the spectacular shoddiness of Roberts’ opinion in Shelby County. It fails to make an even remotely coherent argument to justify declaring that Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act — which used a formula to determine which areas of the country required greater federal oversight of voting practices — is unconstitutional. The text of the Fifteenth Amendment explicitly authorizes Congress to pass legislation to address racial discrimination in voting, and the Voting Rights Act does not violate any specific textual provision.
Whether one agrees with them or not, the Roberts Court’s crucial decisions on gun rights and campaign finance at least have a plausible link to specific constitutional provisions. Shelby County does not.
So what was Roberts’ theory? By requiring jurisdictions with a history of vote discrimination to clear any changes to their election laws with the Justice Department, Congress violated the “equal sovereignty of the states.” The obvious problem with this theory is that there is no such principle in the Constitution. Roberts did not cite any text supporting his view, and the only relevant precedent was one of Roberts’ own opinions.