One of the hallmarks of the U.S. Supreme Court under Chief Justice John Roberts is its avoidance of divisive constitutional rulings at all costs. The latest example of this approach is the Court's decision in Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District v. Holder, which sidestepped a constitutional challenge to the "preclearance" provision of the Voting Rights Act.
Preclearance requires Arizona and a handful of other states to seek permission from the federal government for legislative redistricting. To guarantee federal approval, states have often resorted to gerrymandering--drawing oddly-shaped voting districts to pull minorities from some locations and pack them into others. Preclearance has thereby pervasively promoted race consciousness and minority political segregation as a means of enforcing equal voting rights.
In Northwest Austin Mun. Utility Dist., the Roberts Court could have ended preclearance. Instead, the Court avoided these issues by adopting a new interpretation of the term "political subdivision" in the Voting Rights Act.
There may be times when such narrow rulings are appropriate. But this was not one of them. As Justice Clarence Thomas underscored in his lone dissent, the Court's narrow ruling disregarded the relief sought by the plaintiff in the case, exemption from preclearance. Rather than signaling the end of government-sponsored racialism, the Roberts Court kicked the can down the road.
But opportunities to reform constitutional jurisprudence to conform to the Constitution's original intent rarely repeat themselves. And with nominees like Judge Sonia Sotomayor on the horizon, the goal of ending legally-enshrined race consciousness is becoming ever more tenuous.
The tragic truth is that the Roberts Court had been on the cusp of overturning state-sponsored racialism on principled constitutional grounds. Instead, it embraced intellectual disarmament in order to achieve a transient judicial consensus.
Nick Dranias holds the Goldwater Institute Clarence J. and Katherine P. Duncan chair for constitutional government and is the director of the Institute's Dorothy D. and Joseph A. Moller Center for Constitutional Government.
Goldwater Institute: Goldwater Institute Files U.S. Supreme Court Brief Challenging Voting Rights Act
SCOTUS: Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District v. Holder