The Supreme Court ruled on two hot-button cases this week, largely rejecting racial preferences as a factor in college admissions and striking down the current list of states and localities that must receive federal approval before changing any election laws in their jurisdiction.
In the latter case, Shelby County, Alabama v. Attorney General Eric Holder, the justices ruled 5-4 to strike Section Four of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. It is now up to Congress to reauthorize the list of states and localities that must receive federal permission to make changes or come up with a new list of areas where voting discrimination is a serious concern.
Political observers, particularly those on the left, are vehemently denouncing the decision, saying it's a major step backward in the quest for equal rights and a dangerous decision for minority voters. But one of the leaders of a prominent black conservative organization disagrees.
"I really don't understand the rhetoric from the other side because the Voting Rights Act is very much intact. What the Supreme Court is saying is that basically Congress has not done its job because the law on the books is from 1965. We're now at 2013. Demographics have changed. Issues have changed. Problems, for the most part, in those states have dissipated," said Cherylyn Harley LeBon, co-chair of the Project 21 Black Leadership Council, a project of the National Center for Public Policy Research. "It is Congress' job to come up with the appropriate standard based on 2013 modern-day applications. That's exactly what the Supreme Court is saying."
Critics of the decision contend that the Court is not sensitive to the discrimination efforts that persist to this day. They also worry that Congress may not be able to agree on a list of jurisdictions that require federal oversight, meaning no states or localities will receive it. LeBon disagrees.
"Congress is going to be motivated to do this, and all the Supreme Court has said here is, it's really difficult to enforce this unless Congress comes up with a new way of determining which states and localities require federal monitoring of elections," said LeBon, who explained that several counties listed in the Voting Rights Act have undergone major demographic changes and no longer need the watchful eye of government.
"In some of those counties that we noted in the Shelby County Supreme Court decision, some of those counties are now 90 percent white," she said. "Why would we need to apply the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to a county which is 90 percent white? That doesn't make any sense at all, at all."
The Court also issued a 7-1 decision on college affirmative-action programs, which remanded the University of Texas case back to the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals with instructions to apply "strict scrutiny" to the methods in which the university uses race in admissions.
"The Supreme Court has consistently ruled that decisions based on race and ethnic origin need to be reviewed under the 14th Amendment," LeBon explained. "And this strict scrutiny standard that we constantly talk about is again at issue in this decision. The Supreme Court has set out a standard for universities to adhere to.
"The first prong of the strict scrutiny standard is they've got to show compelling interest in advancing their policy or rule. ... Second, they have to show that the race-neutral policy, meaning their normal admissions policy, would not achieve the same result. Here, what they're saying to the Fifth Circuit is, you're going to have to rehear this case based on a strict scrutiny standard because what you guys applied was too fast and loose."
Lebon said it's not the Supreme Court's job to do the lower courts' jobs. Justice Clarence Thomas said he would have overturned the 2003 Grutter v. Bollinger decision upholding the University of Michigan Law School's use of affirmative-action. Justice Thomas said use of racial preferences "harms the very people it claims to be helping." He compared arguments by the University of Texas at Austin to Jim Crow segregationists.
In his dissent, Thomas wrote, "While the university admits that racial discrimination in admissions is not ideal, it asserts that it is a temporary necessity because of the enduring race consciousness of our society. Yet again, the university echoes the hollow justifications advanced by the segregationists."
Thomas cited the 14th Amendment, arguing that no state shall "deny to any person ... the equal protection of the laws. The Equal Protection Clause guarantees every person the right to be treated equally by the State, without regard to race. At the heart of this [guarantee] lies the principle that the government must treat citizens as individuals and not as members of racial, ethnic, or religious groups. ...
"Unfortunately for the university, the educational benefits flowing from student body diversity – assuming they exist – hardly qualify as a compelling state interest. Indeed, the argument that educational benefits justify racial discrimination was advanced in support of racial segregation in the 1950s, but emphatically rejected by this Court. And just as the alleged educational benefits of segregation were insufficient to justify racial discrimination then … the alleged educational benefits of diversity cannot justify racial discrimination today."
Justice Thomas has endured harsh criticism for his dissent.
"This has been the M.O. since he's been on the bench," LeBon said. "The left and his opponents have not wanted him on the bench, and he's on for life. In my opinion, I think Justice Thomas should be treated just like the other justices and not be singled out by the people who don't like him based on race. Now that is racism. And that is a double standard."