The U.S. Supreme Court sidestepped a constitutional ruling Monday when the panel chose to uphold a core section of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. In an 8-1 decision, with only African-American justice Clarence Thomas dissenting, the court left in place Section 5 of the Act, which requires many Southern state and local jurisdictions, deemed racist when the law was adopted, to apply for federal permission to make changes to voting districts.
A small Texas voting precinct, Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District No. 1, challenged the constitutionality of the act, arguing that racial inequality in the country as a whole had changed substantially since the creation of the law. While the court upheld the provision, they ruled that districts may be able to “bail out” of federal oversight.
This ruling has significance for local jurisdictions such as St. Martinville, which was prevented from holding elections for over a decade in the 1990s while attempting to satisfy Justice Department watchers as the town went through redistricting. Whether Louisiana governments will attempt to opt out of the federal coverage is yet to be seen. The ruling opens the door to addressing the larger issue of racial parity and whether the federal government still has a need to protect minority voting rights, nearly 30 years after declaring segregation illegal.