There was considerable suspense in the Supreme Court chamber Monday morning as Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. began announcing the Court's much-awaited decision in Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District Number One v. Holder, the challenge to the constitutionality of a central part of the Voting Rights Act. Given his skepticism about the need for the law during oral arguments in April, it was not likely that Roberts had written a majority opinion embracing the law.
But he started off with praise for the act. "The historic accomplishments of the Voting Rights Act are undeniable," he told spectators. He also sounded a critical note, saying that under the law, voting districts in covered jurisdictions have to clear any changes in election procedure with "Washington D.C." which he said "intrudes" on the tradition of equal sovereignty for the states. Section 5, the disputed section, "goes beyond what is called for" by the Constitution's Fifteenth Amendment. With the gap narrowing between minority and non-minority voting turnouts, Roberts hinted, the law may no longer be needed. "Things have changed in the South."
As he continued, it seemed likely that Section 5 of the act was in trouble. Yet Roberts' tone was somewhat nonchalant, not what one would expect if the Court was about to overturn a major feature of the nation's civil rights infrastructure. And other justices seemed calm as well; Justice Stephen Breyer, who at first seemed ready to read from a dissent, suddenly relaxed.
And then came the bottom line. Roberts began talking about the doctrine of "constitutional avoidance," whereby the Court will not decide a constitutional question if there is an alternate way to resolve the case." In this instance, there was such an alternate path: finding that the Texas utility district was eligible to seek a "bailout" from Section 5 -- in other words, to convince a three-judge panel that it should not be covered by the preclearance requirements of Section 5.
That was the path the Court agreed to, by an 8-1 vote. Only Justice Clarence Thomas argued that the Court should have gone all the way and declared the law unconstitutional. The Court -- including its liberal members -- were cautioning that the law's burdens "must be justified by current needs," but today was not the day to strike down the law.
The Court also handed down two other decisions, Coeur Alaska Inc. v. Southeast Alaska Conservation Council and Forest Grove School District v. T.A. With seven more decisions left for the term, the Court announced it will return to the bench on Thursday, but did not indicate that Thursday will be the final day of decisions. Check back here later for more on Monday's Supreme Court action.
This article first appeared on The BLT: The Blog of Legal Times.