Congressional Power to Renew the Preclearance Provisions of the Voting Rights Act after Tennessee V. Lane
44 Pages Posted: 2 Jul 2004 Last revised: 25 Jul 2013
This article considers a single question: does Congress have the power to renew the Voting Rights Act's preclearance provisions, set to expire in 2007? Beginning with South Carolina v. Katzenbach (1966), the United States Supreme Court has upheld preclearance as a permissible exercise of congressional enforcement power. These cases, however, mostly predate the Supreme Court's New Federalism revolution. As part of that revolution, the Court, in a series of recent cases has greatly restricted the ability of Congress to pass laws regulating conduct of the states under its enforcement powers granted in Section Five of the Fourteenth Amendment, which the Court has read as coextensive with its enforcement powers under the Fifteenth Amendment. Moreover, in Board of Trustees v. Garrett (2001), the Court made clear that it will search for an adequate evidentiary record to support a congressional determination that states are engaging in unconstitutional conduct so as to justify congressional regulation of the states. Some of that clarity on the evidentiary question disappeared in the Court's 2003 decision, Nevada v. Hibbs, and even greater uncertainty has been created by the Court's 2004 decision, Tennessee v. Lane.
Part I of this article surveys the legal landscape through the developments in Garrett facing those who wish to defend renewed preclearance as an appropriate exercise of congressional power under the Fourteenth or Fifteenth Amendments.
Part II then turns to the "Bull Connor is Dead" problem: Most of the original racist elected officials are out of power, and those who remain in power (along with any new elected officials who either intend to discriminate on the basis of race or who otherwise would care less about a discriminatory effect in a change in voting practices or procedures on a protected minority group) have for the most part been deterred by preclearance. Thus, there is not much of a record of recent state-driven discrimination that Congress could point to supporting renewal. The question of how much racial discrimination in voting practices there would be today if we suddenly eliminated preclearance is almost too speculative to answer. It is difficult to see how Congress may prove that preclearance remains necessary under the Garrett evidentiary standard.
Part III then then explains how in two recent cases on Congressional power, Nevada v. Hibbs and Tennessee v. Lane, the Supreme Court appears to have backed away from the strict evidentiary standard imposed in Garrett. These cases increase the chances that the Court would hold that Congress has the power to reenact section 5's preclearance provisions, particularly given Justice Scalia's separate opinion in Lane in which he indicated his new position that Congress has broad latitude to pass legislation aimed at combating racial discrimination. In addition, the Supreme Court's recent opinion in Georgia v. Ashcroft, construing the statutory standard for granting preclearance, takes more pressure off constitutional challenges to a renewed preclearance provision.
Part IV concludes in a more speculative vein with a look at an alternative basis for congressional power to reenact preclearance: the Guarantee Clause.
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