At first blush, this decision by the Supreme Court in the case of Shelby County v Holder would indicate a big victory for opponents of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Justices struck down the formula used by the Department of Justice to determine which states and localities must ask permission of the government before changing their voting laws.
But the court did not throw out the advance approval requirement itself. Instead, they ordered Congress to come up with a new formula that more realistically reflects the changes in American society since 1965. to determine which states and localities will need to seek permission to change their laws.
The significance of the decision is thus muted by the notion that the federal government can still oversee what is clearly the responsibility of states to design and implement their own voting procedures. If a racial minority feels those procedures are racist or puts them at a disadvantage, they should be able to use the courts to try and redress their grievance. Instead, the Justice Department - with political appointees not always interested in the impartial application of the law - can intervene and maintain an unfair, even discriminatory voting regime against white voters.
The ruling, a 5-4 decision by Chief Justice John Roberts, leaves the future of the law deeply uncertain because it will be up to a sharply divided Congress to redraw the map.
"Our country has changed, 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," Roberts wrote for the court.
Under the law, nine mostly Southern states must get permission from the Justice Department or a special panel of three federal judges before they make changes. The rule also applies to 12 cities and 57 counties elsewhere.
The act is considered the most important piece of civil rights legislation ever passed. Congress has renewed it four times, most recently in 2006, with overwhelming margins in both houses. That renewal extended the law through 2031.
But the law still uses election data from 1972 to determine which states, cities and counties are covered. Some jurisdictions complained that they are being punished for the sins of many decades ago.
As part of the ruling, the court published a chart comparing white and black voter registration in 1965 and in 2004 in the six states originally covered by the law. In Alabama, for example, the white registration rate was 69 percent and the black rate 19 percent in 1965. By 2004, that gap had all but disappeared -- 74 percent for whites and 73 percent for blacks.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote a dissenting opinion and was joined by three other members of the court's more liberal wing.
Was this another punt by SCOTUS on a divisive issue? Not really. They decided the case on narrow grounds, preferring that Congress take the lead in defining what constitutes discrimination. This is what we want the Supreme Court to do. A broader decision would have been taking the matter out of the hands of our elected representatives - something conservatives claim is where they prefer these matters. And we should.
Liberals are up in arms but they shouldn't be. Are they seriously suggesting that conditions in the South are the same today as they were 50 years ago? Time for the "reality based community" to get real and recognize changes in society must be reflected in the laws that govern us.