Shelby County v. Holder

Following is the case brief for Shelby County v. Holder, 133 S. Ct. 2612 (2013)

Case Summary of Shelby County v. Holder:

  • Section 4(b) of the Voting Rights Act has a formula to identify any State or political subdivision that maintained tests or devices to suppress the minority vote as a “covered jurisdiction,” which under Section 5 of the Act must get approval from Congress before changing their election laws.
  • Shelby County, Alabama (a “covered jurisdiction”) asked for a judgment declaring that Sections 4(b) and 5 of the Act are unconstitutional.
  • The lower federal courts upheld those sections of the Act, but the U.S. Supreme Court held that Section 4(b) is unconstitutional.
  • The Court, in essence, found that the type of discrimination that prompted passage of the Act in 1965 no longer exists today, though (strangely) it still recognized that voter discrimination still exists.  The four dissenting justices found it unusual that the Act’s success in combating voter discrimination means that it should be struck down.

Shelby County v. Holder Case Brief

Statement of the Facts:

Congress passed The Voting Rights Act of 1965 to combat the rampant racial discrimination that was occurring in a number of states.  Section 2 of the Act bans any denial of the right to vote based on race.  Section 4(b) of the Act employs a formula to identify any State or political subdivision that used barriers to voting and had low voter registration or turnout in the 1960s and early 70s as a “covered jurisdiction.”  Section 5 provides that no “covered jurisdiction” can change its voting laws unless they are first approved by Congress.

The “coverage formula” of the Act was to expire after five years, but the Act was continually reauthorized.  In 2006, following many hearings and other evidence gathering on voter discrimination, Congress reauthorized the Act for another 25 years.

Procedural History:

  • Shelby County, Alabama, a “covered jurisdiction” under the Act sought a declaratory judgment that Sections 4(b) and 5 of the Act are facially unconstitutional.
  • The District Court upheld the Act, and the D.C. Circuit Court affirmed.
  • The U.S. Supreme Court granted certiorari.

Issue and Holding:

Is Section 4(b) of the Voting Rights Act, which sets out a formula for determining whether a jurisdiction must get prior approval before changing its voter laws, constitutional?  No.


The decision of the D.C. Court of Civil Appeals is reversed.

Rule of Law or Legal Principle Applied:

If discrimination has lessened though not entirely been eliminated, then a law meant to combat more pervasive, flagrant discrimination, such as Section 4(b) of the Voting Rights Act, is no longer constitutional.  A statute must be sufficiently related to the problem it is trying to solve.


Writing for the five justice majority, Chief Justice Roberts began by stating that “voting discrimination still exists; no one doubts that.”  However, the Voting Rights Act employed extreme measures to address an extreme problem of voter suppression, and that extreme problem no longer exists.

Invoking the Tenth Amendment, the Court reasoned that States should have domain over their elections and should be treated equally.  The Voting Rights Act departs “sharply” from those principles because the “covered jurisdictions” are only nine States and several other counties.

Now, largely because of the Voting Rights Act, barriers to voting for minorities have been abolished and disparities in registration and turnout erased.  Congress ignores those developments and focuses on “decades-old data relevant to decades-old problems, rather than current data reflecting current needs.”

The Court concluded by saying that Section 4(b) of the Act is unconstitutional, but that the ban on racial discrimination in voting in Section 2 remains, and that it issues no holding as to Section 5.

Concurring and Dissenting Opinions:

Concurring Opinion (Thomas):

The Court’s reasoning supports a finding that Section 5, requiring approval by Congress before voting laws are changed, is also unconstitutional.

Dissenting Opinion (Ginsburg):

It is strange that the success of the Voting Rights Act “demands its dormancy.”  Further, Congress had extensive hearings and gathered a voluminous amount of evidence before deciding to reauthorize the Act in 2006.  The Court in this case should have deferred to Congress’s judgment, given that Congress has sweeping powers under the Constitution – particularly the post-Civil War amendments – to protect the right of minorities to vote.


Shelby County v. Holder is a landmark decision because it invalidated a way to combat jurisdictions that had a history of discrimination in voting.  Not surprisingly, in the few short years following the decision, voter-identification laws that make voting harder for poor people, people of color, and elderly people, have been moving forward in a number of States.

Student Resources:

Full Text of the Court’s Opinion

Hear the Oral Argument

The Atlantic Article – “How Shelby County v. Holder Broke America”