No More Mr. Nice Guy
The Supreme Court’s stealth hard-liner.
by Jeffrey Toobin
On April 29th, the last day of arguments for the Court’s current term, the Justices heard Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District No. 1 v. Holder, a critical case about the future of the Voting Rights Act. Congress originally passed the law in 1965, and three years ago overwhelmingly passed its latest reauthorization, rejecting arguments that improvements in race relations had rendered the act unnecessary. Specifically, the bill, signed by President George W. Bush in 2006, kept in place Section 5 of the law, which says that certain jurisdictions, largely in the Old South, have to obtain the approval of the Justice Department before making any changes to their electoral rules, from the location of polling places to the boundaries of congressional districts. A small utility district in Texas challenged that part of the law, making the same argument that members of Congress had just discounted"that this process, known as preclearance, amounted to a form of discrimination against the citizens of the New South.
Roberts said little to the lawyer for the plaintiff, but when Neal K. Katyal, the Deputy Solicitor General, took to the lectern to defend the Voting Rights Act, the Chief Justice pounced
. “As I understand it, one-twentieth of one per cent of the submissions are not precleared,” Roberts said. “That, to me, suggests that they are sweeping far more broadly than they need to to address the intentional discrimination under the Fifteenth Amendment”"which guarantees the right to vote regardless of race.
“I disagree with that, Mr. Chief Justice,” Katyal said. “I think what it represents is that Section 5 is actually working very well"that it provides a deterrent.” According to Katyal, the fact that the Justice Department cleared almost all electoral changes proved, in effect, that the South had been trained, if not totally reformed.
Roberts removed his glasses and stared down at Katyal. “That’s like the old elephant whistle,” he said. “You know, ‘I have this whistle to keep away the elephants.’ You know, well, that’s silly. ‘Well, there are no elephants, so it must work.’ ”
Roberts was relentless in challenging Katyal: “So your answer is that Congress can impose this disparate treatment forever because of the history in the South?”
“Absolutely not,” Katyal said.
“When can they"when do they have to stop?”
“Congress here said that twenty-five years was the appropriate reauthorization period.”
“Well, they said five years originally, and then another twenty years,” Roberts said, referring to previous reauthorizations of the act. “I mean, at some point it begins to look like the idea is that this is going to go on forever.”
And this, ultimately, was the source of Roberts’s frustration"and not just in this case. In a series of decisions in the past four years, the Chief Justice has expressed the view that the time has now passed when the Court should allow systemic remedies for racial discrimination. The previous week, the Court heard a challenge by a group of white firefighters in New Haven who were denied promotions even though they had scored better than black applicants on a test. Roberts was, if anything, even more belligerent in questioning the lawyer defending the city. “Now, why is this not intentional discrimination?” he asked. “You are going to have to explain that to me again, because there are particular individuals here,” he said. “And they say they didn’t get their jobs because of intentional racial action by the city.” He added, “You maybe don’t care whether it’s Jones or Smith who is not getting the promotion,” he said. “All you care about is who is getting the promotion. All you care about is his race.”