The euphoria over the striking down of the Defence of Marriage Act, asserting the constitutionality of gay marriage at the state level, has diverted attention from the Supreme Court’s much more significant gutting of the Voting Rights Act (VRA), one of the landmark achievements of the Civil Rights movement.
It was a signal to Republican-controlled legislatures to immediately implement new forms of voter discrimination, such as redistricting and purging of voter rolls. Texas governor Rick Perry has already signed a new congressional district into law to secure electoral advantage for Republicans.
In her dissent, Justice Ruth Ginsburg pointed out that the Court majority, in deciding that voter discrimination was no longer a problem, was usurping the judgment of Congress, which had renewed the Act as recently as 2006 after months of deliberations. A key role was played by Justice Roberts, who introduced a hitherto unknown principle of “equal sovereignty” among the states, arguing that so much has changed since 1965 that it is discriminatory toward the southern states for the federal government to proactively defend the rights of minorities.
E.J. Dionne pointed out: “Chief Justice John Roberts’s opinion involved little constitutional analysis. He simply substituted the court’s judgment for Congress’s in deciding which states should be covered under Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act, which required voting rules in states with a history of discrimination to be pre-cleared by the Justice Department.The court instructed Congress to rewrite the law, even though these sophisticated conservatives certainly know how difficult this will be in the current political climate.”
Ari Berman writes in The Nation: “[Roberts’s] sweeping and radical decision yesterday was more about ideology than the law, constitutional principles or congressional deference be damned.”
A story in the New York Times drew attention to Roberts’s methodical and systematic assault on the law. “Roberts has proved adept at persuading the court’s more liberal justices to join compromise opinions, allowing him to cite their concessions years later as the basis for closely divided and deeply polarizing conservative victories … On Tuesday, when the court struck down a part of the Voting Rights Act, Chief Justice Roberts harvested seeds he had planted four years before. In his 2009 opinion, writing for eight justices, he allowed the Voting Rights Act to stand. But the price he exacted from the court’s liberal wing was language quoted in Tuesday’s decision …”
By invalidating the requirement for preclearance with the federal government for any changes in voting arrangements by states with a history of discrimination, the decision forces victims of discrimination to later sue in court, where challenges will be expensive and time-consuming.
The Court’s highly-politicized conservative majority has kept southern white supremacy intact for the short term. For Republicans, it’s important to defend it because it’s the basis of their dominance of the House. At the same time, it confines their party to its white, southern base, when to gain the White House means winning over a more racially-diverse nation.
Berman told Democracy Now that the strongest political tendency in the southern states “is the tension between demographic change and voter suppression. A third of the country lives in the South right now. One of the consequences of the Voting Rights Act was that it turned the South from Democratic to Republican. It’s shifting back now Democratic. If you look at Barack Obama, he won three states of the old Confederacy. Republicans are aware of that. That’s why they’ve redistricted so aggressively since the 2010 election, and that’s why states like North Carolina, Virginia, Arkansas, etc., are rushing to pass new voting restrictions now.”
At the same time, Southern business models are extending into much of America through low-paid retail and anti-union business strategies. The Southern economy was always based on low wages, and from the time of the New Deal the Southern business elite has been virulently anti-union.
Washington Post writer Harold Meyerson notes: “Its anti-unionism was rooted in more than right-wing antipathy toward worker rights; it was also underpinned by fear that industrial unions would be racially integrated and become vehicles for African American power, as they were in the North. Today, Jim Crow laws are long gone, but the Southern suppression of worker rights and incomes — no matter workers’ race — continues. … Meanwhile, the transformation of the Republican Party into an organization based in and dominated by the white South has turned Northern Republicans more anti-union [as in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Indiana].”
However, as Walmart extends its reach into the North, it also encounters traditions of unionization and self-respect that are causing it major problems. The company is now victimizing those who went on strike recently and stood up to its intimidation, but this is further extending the protests and drawing in support from Congressional Democrats.
Josh Eidelson reports in The Nation: “OUR Walmart is alleging a new wave of retaliation against Walmart worker-activists, with terminations or other discipline targeting at least twenty-six of the hundred-some employees who traveled to Arkansas to protest the retail giant’s June 7 shareholder meeting. Congressmen Keith Ellison (DFL-MN) and Alan Grayson both condemned the firings in Saturday comments to The Nation; Ellison, who chairs the Congressional Progressive Caucus, called Walmart’s actions ‘completely unjust and illegal’.”
The effect of the Supreme Court’s decision in the short term is to help Republicans shore up their dwindling electoral support. It gives further opportunities for the plutocracy to assert outsized influence over elections and state-level legislation. In the longer term, it will galvanize and focus a new civil rights campaign of litigation, organization, mobilization, and coalition, bypassing Obama’s tepid appeal to a polarized Congress to repair the situation.