Scalia did what?!

Surprise Move by Conservative Justice Boosts Voter Rights

We are down to the final two weeks of the Supreme Court’s term, which means all of the most important rulings of the term will come down over the next few days. The most hotly anticipated rulings in cases regarding marriage equality, the Voting Rights Act, and affirmative action in higher education are yet to come, but voting rights advocates received a pleasant surprise this morning from one of the High Court’s most conservative justices.

Writing for a seven-member majority, Justice Scalia threw out an Arizona law that required proof of citizenship in order to register to vote. (Federal law and the federal voter registration form at issue already requires voters to attest under penalty of perjury that they are citizens.) Scalia wrote that a federal law known as the Motor Voter law superseded Arizona’s desire to impose additional obstacles on those seeking to register and vote in federal elections.

As ThinkProgress’ Ian Millhiser outlines, the opinion rests upon a rather sweeping federal power to regulate elections:

The Constitution permits duly enacted federal laws to trump state law, a process known as “preemption.” Normally, however, courts should apply a presumption against preemption and assume that Congress did not intend to invalidate state law if the matter is uncertain. Scalia’s opinion holds that this presumption does not apply with respect to federal laws regulating federal elections, a holding which suggests Congress’ power to sweep away state election laws is quite sweeping.

As the Court points out, this broad view of the federal role in governing elections is consistent with the Constitution’s text, which provides that “[t]he times, places and manner of holding elections for Senators and Representatives, shall be prescribed in each state by the legislature thereof; but the Congress may at any time by law make or alter such regulations.” So a future Congress more supportive of voting rights has the power to sweep away voter ID laws and other methods of voter suppression that have recently popped up mostly in conservative states. By contrast, a future Congress more keen to voter suppression may have significant authority to impose its will on the nation, although this power would be checked by constitutional safeguards against many forms of voter suppression.

It’s also worth noting that the impact of the Arizona law has not been merely theoretical. According to the Mexican American Legal Defense Fund, the group that originally filed suit against the law, in the two year period following the law’s enactment, more than 31,500 voter registration applications were rejected owing to lack of proof of citizenship. Because most people don’t carry proof of citizenship like a passport or birth certificate around with them, the law made voter registration drives in places like malls exceedingly difficult. And indeed, community voter registration dropped 44 percent in Maricopa County, Arizona’s most populous county.

To no one’s surprise, Tea Party darling Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) has already promised that he will file an amendment to the immigration bill in order to once again allow states to disenfranchise people. This marks just the latest attempt by Cruz to torpedo the immigration bill with a poison pill amendment.

BOTTOM LINE: A lot of rulings are yet to come, including a very important case regarding the Voting Rights Act, but today’s ruling is good news for voters and further empowers Congress to do more to protect voting rights across the country.

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Advocacy Team