Incredibly, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 is under attack, and that attack has made its way all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court. Perhaps not so incredibly, some of the right wing Republican justices who hold a 5-4 majority on the Supreme Court trashed the Voting Rights Act during oral arguments today. The grand trash prize goes to Justice Antonin Scalia, who, during the argument, called the Voting Rights Act a “perpetuation of racial entitlement.” Scalia was joined by fellow Republicans Anthony Kennedy, who said that “times change” (implying that one or more sections of the Act may have outlived their usefulness), and Chief Justice John Roberts, who stated similarly that “things have changed in the South.”
If anything, the 2012 election season demonstrated that the Voting Rights Act, intended to give minority and other voters equal rights by eliminating vote-suppressing discrimination, is needed now more than ever. Last year and even before then, case after case arose of Republicans trying to undermine voting by black, Latino and other voters who are known or thought to lean Democratic. These voter suppression efforts took the form of stricter photo i.d. laws, eliminating or curtailing same-day registration and early voting, inadequate number of voting machines, suspicious voting machine mechanical problems, shorter voting hours, long lines, and more.
But apparently, all this is just fine with the Republican Supreme Court Justices. In fact, the lawyer who brought the Voting Rights Act case before the Court has ties to Republican voter suppression efforts and even worked as a law clerk for right wing Justice Clarence Thomas. Moreover, Chief Justice Roberts fought against the Voting Rights Act as a lawyer for the Reagan Administration. These older men appear to live in the same bubble as many Republican politicians, perhaps wistfully dreaming of an America long gone, when things were better and they were at the top of the pecking order. At least Thomas, who is black and, at 64, may have experienced discrimination, should know better.
However, Chief Justice Roberts may face a dilemma here similar to the one he faced when the Supreme Court, under his leadership, upheld the Affordable Care Act last June: Roberts seems to have a sense of where America is politically, and how Americans could vilify his Republican Supreme Court (and possibly his Republican Party) if the Court makes a decision that is out of touch with mainstream Americans. While the Republican Justices on the Court have had a clear, activist political agenda to help Republicans (see, for example, their Bush v. Gore and Citizens United decisions), Roberts will have to remember that a short-term victory for Republicans on voting rights could ultimately kill the Republican Party.