Voting rights - Shelby County v Holder (2013) - Case Summary

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Modified: 22nd Feb 2024
Wordcount: 607 words


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Legal Case Summary

Summary: US Supreme Court case declaring a key part of the Voting Rights Act unconstitutional.


In 2006, Congress reauthorized Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which requires certain states and local governments with a history of discriminatory voting practices to obtain federal preclearance before implementing any changes to their voting laws or practices. Shelby County, Alabama, a covered jurisdiction, filed a lawsuit in federal court challenging the constitutionality of Section 5's coverage formula (Section 4b), which the county argued exceeded Congress's power to enforce the 14th and 15th Amendments.


The main legal issue in Shelby County v. Holder centred on whether Congress’s decision to reauthorize Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act under the pre-existing coverage formula of Section 4(b) of the Act exceeded its authority under the 14th and 15th amendments and thus violated the Tenth Amendment of the Constitution and Article IV of the Constitution. Moreover, the case questioned the ongoing relevance and constitutionality of the preclearance requirements.


The decision has been highly controversial, seen as a significant setback in the movement for voting rights. The Court maintained that the coverage formula was based on outdated data and failed to reflect contemporary racial conditions. It prompted extensive debate about Congress’s ability and willingness to revise the coverage formula. So far, Congress has not done so, and the preclearance requirements remain unenforced.


The US Supreme Court, in a 5-4 decision, held that Section 4(b) of the Voting Rights Act is unconstitutional. As a result, Section 5's preclearance requirements became effectively unenforceable. However, it is essential to point out that only Section 4(b) was declared unconstitutional, not Section 5 itself, nor the whole VRA. This suggests that if Congress could create a new, constitutionally valid coverage formula, preclearance could again be enforced.


  • Shelby County v. Holder, 570 U.S. 529 (2013)
  • Chemerinsky, E. (2013) The Supreme Court A to Z. California: University of California Press.
  • Chandler, S. (2014) 'Reflections on Shelby County v. Holder', Yale Journal of Law & Feminism, vol. 26, no. 8, pp. 29-56

Journalist Brief

Shelby County v. Holder was a milestone Supreme Court case, ruling a crucial part of the Voting Rights Act—the legislation designed to prevent racial discrimination in voting practices—unconstitutional. The case originated from Alabama, where the county of Shelby challenged the formula used to enforce this legislation. It believed that the formula, based on historical data, was no longer valid in modern America. The Supreme Court agreed, effectively disabling enforcement of the Act, sparking debate about the protection of voting rights.


What was the Shelby County v. Holder case about?

Answer: Shelby County v. Holder was about the constitutionality of Section 4(b) of the Voting Rights Act (VRA) of 1965, which required certain states and local governments to obtain federal approval before changing their voting laws or practices.

What was the outcome of the case?

Answer: The Supreme Court ruled in a 5-4 decision that Section 4(b) of the VRA was unconstitutional, effectively making the preclearance requirements of Section 5 unenforceable.

What has been the impact of the Shelby County v. Holder decision?

Answer: The decision has come under heavy criticism, being viewed as a significant drawback to the voting rights movement. It has sparked an ongoing debate about Congress's ability and willingness to revise the coverage formula.

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