In 2013, Chief Justice John Roberts made a sweeping declaration about the state of voting rights in America. “Our country has changed,” he wrote in his majority opinion in Shelby County v. Holder, “and while any racial discrimination in voting is too much, Congress must ensure that the legislation it passes to remedy that problem speaks to current conditions.” With those words, Roberts and four other justices on the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a core provision of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, a hammer of a civil-rights law that helped bludgeon recalcitrant states toward multiracial democracy. The majority concluded Congress was relying on out-of-date data when formulating which jurisdictions still had to receive federal approval to change their election laws and policies—a practice known as preclearance that’s meant to block discriminatory measures. Four justices, led by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, denounced the decision in stark terms. “Hubris is a fit word for today’s demolition of the VRA,” she wrote in dissent.
The evidence presented to the court “establishes that a discriminatory purpose was at least one of the substantial or motivating factors” behind the bill’s passage, federal judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos wrote in her order in Veasey v. Abbott. “Consequently, the burden shifted to the state to demonstrate that the law would have been enacted without its discriminatory purpose. The state has not met its burden.”