When he was in his late 20s, John Roberts was a foot soldier in the Reagan administration’s crusade against the Voting Rights Act. Now, as chief justice of the Supreme Court, he will help determine whether a key part of the law survives a constitutional challenge.
Memos that Roberts wrote as a lawyer in President Reagan’s Justice Department during the 1980s show that he was deeply involved in efforts to curtail the effectiveness of the Voting Rights Act, the hard-won landmark 1965 law that is intended to ensure all Americans can vote. Roberts’ anti-VRA efforts during the 1980s ultimately failed. But on Wednesday, when the Supreme Court hears oral arguments in Shelby County v. Holder, he’ll get another chance to gut the law. Roberts’ history suggests a crucial part of the VRA may not survive the rematch.
At issue in Shelby County is whether a major portion of the Voting Rights Act, called Section 5, is constitutional. Section 5 compels jurisdictions with a history of discrimination, mostly in the South, to ask the Justice Department for permission—preclearance, in legalese—before making any changes to election laws. Shelby County, Alabama, is arguing that Section 5 is an extreme measure that is no longer justified because racism is no longer the problem it once was. If Section 5 is overturned, voting rights groups say, the federal government’s ability to ensure Americans are not denied the right to vote on the basis of race—at a time when race has been used as a proxy for party identification—will be severely weakened.
Shelby County offers Roberts an opportunity to complete a mission he began three decades ago. When the chief justice was a young lawyer, in 1981, Southern legislators hoped an ascendant conservative movement could pressure Reagan into opposing an extension of the VRA. In June of that year, Reagan wrote a letter to Attorney General William French Smith requesting an “assessment” of the law.
The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday allowed a controversial state DNA testing law to remain in effect until the justices have time to consider the broader constitutional questions.
Maryland’s DNA Collection Act permits police to collect genetic material from those who have been arrested, but not yet convicted.
Chief Justice John Roberts issued the three-page in-chambers opinion, putting a state court’s ruling favoring a criminal defendant on hold.
“Collecting DNA from individuals arrested for violent felonies provides a valuable tool for investigating unsolved crimes and thereby helping to remove violent offenders from the general population,” Roberts wrote. “Crimes for which DNA evidence is implicated tend to be serious, and serious crimes cause serious injuries. That Maryland may not employ a duly enacted statute to help prevent these injuries constitutes irreparable harm.”
The chief justice said there is a “fair prospect” the Supreme Court would ultimately find in favor of the state on the search and seizure questions.
After more legal briefs are filed, the high court in coming weeks will decide whether to hear the case and issue a definitive, binding ruling. Oral arguments would likely not be held until early next year.
A 1994 federal law created a national database in which local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies can compare and share information on DNA matches from convicted felons, but courts have been at odds on just when such samples can be collected and the information distributed.
Last week, a New York Times/CBS poll found that only 44 percent of Americans approve of the Supreme Court’s job performance and 75 percent say the justices are sometimes influenced by their political views. But although the results of the poll were striking, commentators may have been too quick to suggest a direct link between the two findings. In the Times article on the poll, for example, Adam Liptak and Allison Kopicki suggested that the drop in the Court’s 66 percent approval ratings in the late 1980s “could reflect a sense that the court is more political, after the ideologically divided 5-to-4 decisions in Bush v. Gore and Citizens United.” At the beginning of his tenure, Chief Justice John Roberts said that he subscribed to a similar theory. “I do think the rule of law is threatened by a steady term after term after term focus on 5-4 decisions,” Roberts told me.
But a new study by Nathaniel Persily of Columbia Law School and Stephen Ansolabehere of Harvard suggests that the relationship between the Court’s declining approval ratings and increased perceptions of the Court’s partisanship may be more complicated than the New York Times and the Chief Justice suggest.
On the campaign trail, Roy Moore wears a metal pin of a cross on his suit jackets, praises “almighty God” and refers to the United States as a “Christian nation.”
But there is one demonstration of his faith that Mr. Moore, the Republican nominee for chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court, promises not to make.
“No, I won’t bring back the Ten Commandments,” he said. “Not again.”
It has been nearly a decade since Mr. Moore, then chief justice, became a focus in the national debate over religious liberty by defying a federal order to remove a 5,000-pound granite statue of the holy tablets from his Montgomery courthouse. He lost the fight and was removed from the bench by a state ethics panel in 2003.
But Mr. Moore, 65, is on the verge of a political comeback. In an upset two weeks ago, he won the Republican nomination without a runoff, against two far better financed opponents, including the current chief justice.
Although Mr. Moore speaks about a wide range of conservative issues during the campaign, including repealing the federal health care law and reducing the nation’s debt, most questions from reporters and his audiences have to do with the Ten Commandments.