An “Equal Sovereignty” Principle Born in Northwest Austin, Texas, Raised in Shelby County, Alabama
See, e.g., Kevin Johnson & Richard Wolf, Justice Department sues Texas over new voter ID law, USA
AN “EQUAL SOVEREIGNTY” PRINCIPLE BORN IN NORTHWEST AUSTIN, TEXAS, RAISED IN SHELBY COUNTY, ALABAMA
“[A] small inconsequential village will shortly find out that there are causes and effects that have no precedent - such is usually the case in the Twilight Zone.” The 1965 Voting Rights Act1 brought to a halt the regime of organized racial discrimination against voters in the South, by subjecting offending states and localities to federal oversight whenever they wanted to implement new voting procedures. But this renewable remedy as a viable solution to the historical and ongoing disenfranchisement of voters of color, would be shortlived. state sovereignty.2 This would mark the eventual undoing of the heart of the Act, by the Court's 2013 opinion in Shelby County v. Holder.3 *Cornell University, B.S., Albany Law School, J.D. Thanks to my parents for inspiring this essay. I regret that I never thanked my Dad for the stories of his time in Virginia during the 1950's, where as a young Chinese American decorated veteran of the United States Army, he had to use either “White” or “Colored” facilities depending on who interpreted and enforced the rules at any given moment. Dad, thank you for everything you gave to us and this country. Mom, as always, thank you for your sacrifices making everything else I have possible. I am grateful to Anthony Paul Farley for the invitation to participate in this symposium. I also thank Deborah W. Post for insightful feedback on the earlier draft. This essay is also dedicated to the memory of Sylvia, Buddy, Rocky and Venice, each of whom displayed more humanity than the Court could ever bestow upon a state. 1Voting Rights Act of 1965, Pub. L. No. 89-110, 79 Stat. 437 (codified as amended at 42 U.S.C. §§ 19731973aa-6 (2006)). 2Northwest Austin Mun. Util. Dist. No. One v. Holder, 557 U.S. 193 (2009). 3Shelby County v. Holder, 133 S.Ct. 2612 (2013).
used to identify the worst offending jurisdictions; as an infringement upon
Chief Justice John Roberts, who wrote both opinions, cited an “historic
tradition that all the States enjoy ‘equal sovereignty’”4 and announced a
“fundamental principle of equal sovereignty” of the states,5 in the Northwest
Austin opinion. Simultaneously drawing from and ignoring the long history
of the unequal application of the equal footing doctrine for newly admitted
states,6 it appears the Chief Justice cleverly (or not so cleverly) dissected the
definition of the doctrine7 to equate “equal sovereignty” with an “equal
footing,” created a principle from within the doctrine, and then called it
“fundamental,” all with remarkable expediency.8 The so-called “equal
sovereignty” principle – made up of cut and pasted words and concepts9 – has
far reaching implications beyond weakening the Voting Rights Act and the
issue of voter suppression in areas previously covered by the statute.10
This essay examines how Chief Justice Roberts, over the course of two
Supreme Court opinions, created and applied a new “fundamental principle
of equal sovereignty” which became the basis for invalidating a key
component of the Voting Rights Act. The principle is a derivative of the equal
footing doctrine, whereby new states are to be admitted with the same rights,
4Northwest Austin, 557 U.S. at 203 (citing United States v. La., 363 U.S. 1 (1960) (citing Pollard v. Hagan,
44 U.S. 212, 223 (1845)).
5Id. at 203.
6This analysis of the history of the equal footing doctrine and its evolution into the so-called “equal
sovereignty” principle is limited to the historical pretense of new sovereignties formed from unsettled
land. The discussion of the taking of land and displacement of the first nations, in order to carve out the
United States, is a subject that deserves its own scholarship.
7BLACK’S LAW DICTIONARY 240 (2nd Pocket ed. 2001) (“The principle that a state admitted to the Union
after 1789 enters with the same rights, sovereignty, and jurisdiction within its borders as did the original
8See generally Suzanna Sherry, Foundational Facts and Doctrinal Change, 2011 U. ILL. L. REV. 145, 146
(2011) (“[J]udges may be unaware of (or unwilling to acknowledge) either the original assumptions or
their replacements. This blindness can yield a jarring discontinuity between old doctrine and new
doctrine, accompanied by a denial that the doctrine is changing at all.”).
9See Victoria F. Nourse, Making Constitutional Doctrine in a Realist Age, 145 U. PA. L. REV. 1401, 1403
(1997) (“Doctrine is not simply random word-choice, but reflected job description.”).
10See, e.g., Letter from Greg Abbott to Kay Bailey Hutchison and John Cornyn (Jan. 5, 2010), 1 J.L.:
PERIODICAL LABORATORY OF LEG. SCHOLARSHIP 51, 53 (2011) (arguing that the “Nebraska Compromise” for
the passage of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act is unjustified in light of the “fundamental
principle of equal sovereignty”).
sovereignty and jurisdiction, equal to that of the original thirteen states. But
the Court and others refer to the principle indistinguishably from references
to the equal footing doctrine, adopting its case law history and thereby
assuming a broader meaning for the underlying doctrine.11
equal footing doctrine applies to the admission of new states to the Union on
an equal footing with the existing states, the “equal sovereignty” principle
stands for the notion of a perpetual equality of the states. The irony here is
that most of the states were not admitted on an equal footing, but rather with
conditions and stipulations other states were not subject to.12 Given the fact
that the states were founded on unequal terms, the equal footing doctrine has
more in form
What the derivative “equal
sovereignty” principle lacked in common law significance, the “fundamental”
label would garner in constitutional credibility, for the Court to re-establish
an ideology of the equality of the states.13
The “fundamental principle of equal sovereignty” reflects the trajectory
in jurisprudence of the Roberts Court14 and a leap back in time for this
11Shelby County, 133 S.Ct. 2612; Northwest Austin, 557 U.S. at 203; see, e.g., John G. Tamasitis, “Things
Have Changed in the South”: How Preclearance of South Carolina's Voter Photo ID Law Demonstrates that
Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act is No Longer a Constitutional Remedy, 64 S.C. L. REV. 959, 988 (2013)
(alteration in original) (citations omitted). Tamasitis confounded the principle with the doctrine:
The concept of “equal sovereignty” rests on the principle that when a
new state is admitted into the Union, it is provided all the powers
that were afforded to the original states, and those powers may not
be “diminished or impaired” by conditions under which the new state
entered the Union. As a result, no state can be “deprived of any of
the power constitutionally possessed by other [s]tates” so as to place
them on unequal footing.
12See Eric Biber, The Price of Admission: Causes, Effects, and Patterns of Conditions Imposed on States
Entering the Union, 46 AM. J. LEGAL HIST. 119 (2004).
13See Nourse, supra note 9, at 1435-36. Nourse explained how the “fundamental” label can boost the
meaning behind a principle:
The story is familiar enough: one day a judge has occasion to use an
expression that involves an adjective of weight, power, strength, or
direction (for example, “compelling,” “hard,” or “fundamental”). Upon
reading this opinion, later courts seize upon the adjective and
conclude that the earlier case stands for a principle that the adjective
announces. Over time and repeated use, the chosen phrase is
elevated to constitutional stardom.
14See Sumi Cho, Post-Racialism, 94 IOWA L. REV. 1589, 1620-21 (2009) (citations omitted). Cho recognized
that the Roberts Court had embarked on a new course of jurisprudence after the Parents Involved opinion
in 2007, and was prescient enough to foretell that the then-upcoming Northwest Austin case might
elucidate that new course:
nation. With a premium placed on deference to equal state sovereignty over
equal protection of individuals, the paradox in the Shelby County opinion
helped the South to rise again and become the center of this controversy. The
history of non-enforcement of the post-Civil-War Amendments,15 as a nod to
After analyzing the recent Parents Involved case as an incident
suggesting a post-racial turn in the Court, it is entirely too early to
tell whether the Court will continue to deploy colorblindness in its
post-civil rights rhetoric or shift towards post-racialism. Upcoming
cases on both employment discrimination and voting rights will
provide a better database upon which this question might be
revisited. Although Justice Roberts seems quite adept at the
moralequivalence soundbyte [sic] feature of post-racialism, such
statements are also consistent with colorblindness and may remain
just that. If future cases dealing with racial remediation effectuate a
retreat from race, invoking racial progress or transcendence,
raceneutral universalisms, moral equivalences, and distancing from
standard civil-rights approaches, one would be on firmer grounds to
announce the emergence of a post-racial Court.
15Id. at 1606 (citations omitted). Cho placed the post-Reconstruction period in the context of a
racialdictatorship era, wherein the post-Civil-War Amendments were circumvented in the name of
The passage of the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth
Amendments, along with Reconstruction-era civil-rights statutes,
provided a brief respite from the racial-dictatorship era following the
Civil War. This respite, a result of an interest convergence in
maintaining Republican Party influence in the South, was cut short
by the Hayes-Tilden Compromise of 1877, which ushered in the
postReconstruction era with a vengeance. The post-Reconstruction era,
with its devolution of state-based federalism accompanied by the
withdrawal of federal troops from the South, left no significant
federal support in place to enforce the rights of formerly enslaved
people. In Derrick Bell's terms, the Hayes-Tilden Compromise
represented the ultimate racial compromise: allowing disparate
groups of whites to settle their political differences over the
involuntary sacrifice of Blacks.
In the racial-dictatorship era, unreconstructed white normativity
prevailed and legislatures passed laws that were clearly “race-d” to
disadvantage peoples of color under the auspice of “states-rights”
based federalism. The courts in the racial-dictatorship era provided
little relief. Indeed, courts eviscerated the meaning of the
Reconstruction Amendments and civil-rights statutes by using
seemingly neutral strategies to disenfranchise peoples of color in
lockstep with sociopolitical forces that sought to restore the South's
the dignity of the Southern states following their defeat in the War, was
resurrected by Chief Justice Roberts’ concoction of a principle used to release
the states from federal oversight of local attempts at voter suppression.16
The “equal sovereignty” principle has already been applied to other
issues besides voting legislation, and now its influence as a constitutional
precedent appears dangerously limitless. As a principle derived from a
doctrine which has endured in name but been applied pretentiously
throughout this nation’s history, the fundamental “equal sovereignty”
principle has had to establish itself in the tradition of its creator’s “existential
logic,”17 whereby according to Chief Justice Roberts, “The way to stop
discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of
race.”18 The method by which Roberts has imposed the principle into the
lexicon of Constitutional law follows that rule of logic; that is, the way to
create precedent is to create a precedent.
The Voting Rights Act of 1965 contained three key components: (1) a
nationwide ban on voter discrimination based on race or color (protection for
language-minority voters would be added in 1975), and (2) a coverage formula
that determined how states and localities would be selected for (3) a
preclearance requirement, under which the covered states and localities were
subject to federal approval before enacting any changes to their voting
procedures.19 These were §§ 2, 4(b) and 5 respectively.20 The Act was passed
to eliminate organized voter suppression in parts of the nation with
16See Joseph Fishkin, The Dignity of the South, 123 YALE L.J. ONLINE 175, para. 4 (2013), http://
yalelawjournal.org/2013/06/08/fishkin.html (footnotes omitted) (“The Court invoked what it called a
‘fundamental principle of equal sovereignty’ of the states. This principle has a nice ring to it. But as a
constraint on the federal government's power to treat states unequally, it has no basis either in
constitutional text or in existing constitutional doctrine.”).
17David Kow, The (Un)compelling Interest for Underrepresented Minority Students: Enhancing the
Education of White Students Underexposed to Racial Diversity, 20 BERKELEY LA RAZA L.J. 157, 168 (2010).
18Parents Involved in Cmty. Sch. v. Seattle Sch. Dist. No. 1, 551 U.S. 701, 748 (2007).
1942 U.S.C. §§ 1973(a), 1973b(b), 1973c (2006); see also Voting Rights Act Amendments of 1975, § 203
(requiring multilingual voting support for non-English-speaking voters).
2042 U.S.C. §§ 1973(a), 1973b(b), 1973c.
“entrenched racial discrimination” against voters of color.21 “[T]he
unprovoked attack on March 7, 1965, by state troopers on peaceful marchers
crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, en route to the state
capitol in Montgomery, persuaded . . . President [Johnson] and Congress to
overcome Southern legislators' resistance to effective voting rights
legislation.”22 The initial law was set to expire after five years.23
In 2006, Congress reauthorized the Voting Rights Act for the fourth
time, extending its provisions for another twenty-five years.24 Before the
final vote, “[t]he House and Senate Judiciary Committees held 21 hearings,
heard from scores of witnesses, received a number of investigative reports
and other written documentation of continuing discrimination in covered
jurisdictions. In all, the legislative record Congress compiled filled more than
15,000 pages.”25 The reauthorization passed by a vote of 390 – 33 in the
House, and 98 – 0 in the Senate.26 Compelling data and anecdotes revealed a
“second-generation” form of racial discrimination taking root in place of
largely eradicated “first-generation barriers” against voters of color.27
“Efforts to reduce the impact of minority votes, in contrast to direct attempts
to block access to the ballot, are aptly described as ‘second-generation
barriers’ to minority voting.”28
“The coverage formula remained the same, based on the use of
votingeligibility tests and the rate of registration and turnout among all voters, but
the pertinent dates for assessing these criteria moved from 1964 to include
21Shelby County, 133 S.Ct. at 2618; see also South Carolina v. Katzenbach, 383 U.S. 301, 315 (1966)
(footnote omitted) (“The Voting Rights Act of 1965 reflects Congress' firm intention to rid the country of
racial discrimination in voting. The heart of the Act is a complex scheme of stringent remedies aimed at
areas where voting discrimination has been most flagrant.”), abrogated by Shelby County, 133 S.Ct. 2612.
22United States Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division, History of Federal Voting Rights Laws,
http://www.justice.gov/crt/about/vot/intro/intro_b.php (last visited Sept. 23, 2013).
2342 U.S.C. § 1973b(a) (1965).
2442 U.S.C. § 1973b(a)(8) (2006).
25Shelby County, 133 S.Ct. at 2636 (Ginsburg, J., dissenting) (citation omitted).
26152 Cong. Rec. 14,303-304, 15,325 (2006).
27Shelby County, 133 S.Ct. at 2651 (Ginsburg, J., dissenting).
28Id. at 2634 (Ginsburg, J., dissenting).
1968 and eventually 1972.”29 If “the Attorney General determine[d] [that a
state or political subdivision] maintained on November 1, 1972, any test or
device” such that “less than 50 per centum of the citizens of voting age were
registered on November 1, 1972, or that less than 50 per centum of such
persons voted in the Presidential election of November 1972,” this coverage
formula applied to subject that state or political subdivision to preclearance
as of 1975.30 “The [Act] permits a jurisdiction to bail out by showing that it
has complied with the Act for ten years, and has engaged in efforts to
eliminate intimidation and harassment of voters.”31 “It also authorizes a
court to subject a noncovered [sic] jurisdiction to federal preclearance upon
finding that violations of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments have
In 2009, the constitutionality of the §5 preclearance requirement was
challenged by a Texas utility district in the Northwest Austin case.33 The
Supreme Court side-stepped the constitutional question, decided a separate
statutory issue and remanded the case back to the United States District
Court in Washington, D.C.34 In 2013, the Supreme Court heard its next
challenge to the constitutionality of the Voting Rights Act, this time brought
by Shelby County, Alabama.35 Just four years later, the outcome was
markedly different. In Shelby County, the Court held that the §4(b) coverage
formula was unconstitutional.36 In a 5 – 4 decision, the majority effectively
ended two of the main provisions of the Act, invalidating the coverage
formula, and by implication, neutralizing the preclearance requirement.37
29Northwest Austin, 557 U.S. at 200 (citing 42 U.S.C. § 1973b(b)).
3042 U.S.C. § 1973b(b) (2006 ed.).
31Shelby County, 133 S.Ct. at 2644 (Ginsburg, J., dissenting) (citing 42 U.S.C. § 1973b(a) (2006 ed. and
32Id. (citing 42 U.S.C. § 1973a(c) (2006 ed.)).
33Northwest Austin, 557 U.S. 193.
35Shelby County, 133 S.Ct. 2612.
36Id. at 2631.
Giving Birth to a “Fundamental Principle of Equal Sovereignty”
Although not dispositive of the outcome in Northwest Austin,38 Chief
Justice Roberts gave birth in that case to a “fundamental principle of equal
sovereignty” that would prove to be a decisive precedent39 in Shelby County.40
Depicting a legal principle as “fundamental” elevates its status in
Constitutional law.41 The notion of “equal sovereignty” in the context of
federalism, was presented as a “fundamental principle” for the first time in
Northwest Austin, yet even then only once in dicta without explanation.42
The equal sovereignty principle, buttressed by the “fundamental” label, could
therefore be afforded as much (if not more) jurisprudential weight as the
fundamental voting rights43 of citizens of the covered jurisdictions. That
38Northwest Austin, 557 U.S. at 197 (“Our usual practice is to avoid the unnecessary resolution of
39Cf. Charles Fried, Constitutional Doctrine, 107 HARV. L. REV. 1140, 1144 (1994). Fried discussed two
requirements for doctrinal precedent:
We require continuity in legal doctrine. Yet we also require each new
decision to be more or less right on its merits, and not just because it
accords with prior cases. The only way we can have both is for the
new decision to be right, in part at least, because it accords with
established doctrine . . . .
40Shelby County, 133 S.Ct. at 2624 (citing Northwest Austin, 557 U.S. at 203) (“[A]s we made clear in
Northwest Austin, the fundamental principle of equal sovereignty remains highly pertinent in assessing
subsequent disparate treatment of States.”).
41See Nourse, supra note 9, at 1435-36.
42Northwest Austin, 557 U.S. at 203.
43See, e.g., Bartlett v. Strickland, 556 U.S. 1, 10 (2009) (“one of the most fundamental rights of our
citizens: the right to vote”); Bush v. Gore, 531 U.S. 98, 104 (2000) (“the right to vote as the legislature has
prescribed is fundamental”); cf. Joshua A. Douglas, Is the Right to Vote Really Fundamental?, 18 CORNELL
J.L. & PUB. POL’Y 143, 145 (2008) (“Although the right to vote is considered a ‘fundamental’ right, courts
often treat the right to vote as less than fundamental by employing a low level of scrutiny to election law
“fundamental principle” is then cited numerous times in Shelby County,
cementing its constitutional status.44
In the Northwest Austin opinion, the following was the single sentence
where the Chief Justice used the word “fundamental” to describe the
principle, citing no authority: “But a departure from the fundamental
principle of equal sovereignty requires a showing that a statute's disparate
geographic coverage is sufficiently related to the problem that it targets.”45
This was only the second of two instances in the entire opinion mentioning
the term “equal sovereignty,” both in dicta.46 Yet in the Shelby County
opinion, the Chief Justice refers to an “equal sovereignty” principle seven
times,47 referencing his own “fundamental” sentence from Northwest Austin
three times.48 More problematic for the legitimacy of the principle is the
incorrect citation in Shelby County, attributing the quoted phrase
“fundamental principle of equal sovereignty” (with emphasis added by the
Chief Justice) to a Northwest Austin citation to United States v. Louisiana,
363 U.S. 1, 16 (1960), Lessee of Pollard v. Hagan, 3 How. 212, 223 (1845) and
Texas v. White, 7 Wall. 700, 725–726 (1869).49 In fact, in Northwest Austin, it
was the other “equal sovereignty” sentence regarding an “historic tradition
that all the States enjoy ‘equal sovereignty’” that cited to those other cases.50
An “historic tradition” is not interchangeable with a “fundamental principle,”
and nowhere in those cited cases is the notion of “equal sovereignty”
44Shelby County, 133 S.Ct. 2612 passim; cf. Fried, supra note 39, at 1141-42. Fried explained the link
between credibility of cited cases and legal doctrine:
Although doctrine does not entail respect for precedent, respect for
precedent comes much closer to entailing doctrine. Reference to a
prior decision to justify a present one requires identifying what it is
about the prior decision that is being carried forward. A judge might,
of course, say no more than that this new case seems similar to the
old one and decline to explain what it is about the precedent that
makes it controlling. If the citation is more than decoration,
however, it implies that the prior decision explains and justifies the
present result. Such an explanation is at least the germ of a doctrine
. . . .
45Northwest Austin, 557 U.S. at 203.
47Shelby County, 133 S.Ct. at 2618, 2621, 2622, 2623, 2624, 2630.
48Id. at 2622, 2623, 2624.
49Shelby County, 133 S.Ct. at 2623 (incorrect citation in original).
50Northwest Austin, 557 U.S. at 203.
discussed as “fundamental.”51 Moreover, with legislated disparities in rights
and conditions of statehood among admitted states, the notions of an “equal
footing” and “equal sovereignty” of the states have survived in the Court’s
mind and jurisprudence more as rhetorical heritage than true historic
tradition.52 Although modern-day seeds of a sovereign-dignity-of-states
ideology appeared in two Supreme Court opinions in 1999, this may be
distinguishable from the “equal sovereignty” principle since neither case was
mentioned by the Chief Justice in Northwest Austin or Shelby County53 – only
one was cited once in the concurring opinion by Justice Thomas in Northwest
A proper citation by Chief Justice Roberts in both Northwest Austin
and Shelby County, for the phrase “fundamental principle of equal
sovereignty,” might have been to Mexico's Position Regarding the
HelmsBurton Act and Cuba, dated August 28, 1996.55 Mexico’s concerns about the
ongoing sanctions against Cuba and the reach of the United States created by
the legislation announcing sanctions against Mexican companies and citizens
if they engaged in commerce with Cuba, included the
now-federalismidentified phrase of the Roberts Court. Mexico’s Position reads in part:
“Regarding the Helms-Burton Act . . . [,] [t]his legislation includes specific
measures regarding its extraterritorial enforcement, which ignore the
fundamental principle of equal sovereignty among States, and, consequently,
are clearly incompatible with international law.”56 But, of course, referencing
Mexico’s 1996 position on a piece of legislation affecting international
relations among nation-states, would undermine the proposition that the
51Shelby County, 133 S.Ct. at 2623 (incorrectly citing Northwest Austin, 557 U.S. at 203 (citing United
States v. Louisiana, 363 U.S. 1, 16 (1960); Lessee of Pollard v. Hagan, 3 How. 212, 223 (1845); and Texas
v. White, 7 Wall. 700, 725–726 (1869) (order of citation in original))).
52See infra Part III; Biber, supra note 12, at 124 (“[T]he history of the use of conditions--used unequally
against states that are perceived as different or disloyal, . . . and to subordinate states to an overarching
federal system--raises questions about the historical grounding for the Court's legal conclusions.”).
53See Alden v. Maine, 527 U.S. 706 (1999); College Sav. Bank v. Florida Prepaid Postsecondary Educ.
Expense Bd., 527 U.S. 627 (1999).
54Northwest Austin, 557 U.S. at 217 (Thomas, J., concurring) (citing Alden, 527 U.S. at 713).
55See Mexico's Position Regarding the Helms-Burton Act and Cuba (Aug. 28, 1996), 20 HASTINGS INT'L &
COMP. L. REV. 809 (1997).
56Id. at 812 (emphasis added).
principle stands for a federalism-based equal sovereignty. Omission of a
legitimate citation reveals instead, a borrowed concept and unattributed
There was no authority cited in Northwest Austin for the
federalismproposition of a “fundamental principle of equal sovereignty,” because up to
that point none existed.57 In Shelby County, as the next Supreme Court case
on the constitutionality of the Voting Rights Act, the only authority that
Chief Justice Roberts could have properly cited, to support the proposition,
was his own Northwest Austin opinion from four years earlier.58 A more
skeptical view questions whether the Chief Justice did not intend the “equal
sovereignty” principle to be couched in dicta and thus ignored by the other
Justices in Northwest Austin, thereby allowing for its fermentation into
precedent for citation by the next constitutional challenge to the Act.59
The Chief Justice explained, “[I]n 2009, we took care to avoid ruling on
the constitutionality of the Voting Rights Act when asked to do so, and
instead resolved the case then before us on statutory grounds. But in issuing
that decision, we expressed our broader concerns about the constitutionality
of the Act.”60 Lacking a precedent to nullify the parts of the Act in question,
Chief Justice Roberts had no choice but to decide Northwest Austin on the
statutory issue. In order to avoid this predicament in the next case, he
created the “fundamental principle of equal sovereignty” as dictum, which
could then be cited as precedent from that point forward.
In 2005, during his Senate confirmation hearing to become the next
Chief Justice, the then-Judge Roberts testified that “Judges are like umpires.
57Northwest Austin, 557 U.S. at 203.
58See, e.g., Shelby County, 133 S.Ct. at 2622 (citation and footnote omitted). With no other authority for
his proposition, Chief Justice Roberts relied on his own earlier opinion:
In Northwest Austin, we stated that “the Act imposes current
burdens and must be justified by current needs.” And we concluded
that “a departure from the fundamental principle of equal
sovereignty requires a showing that a statute's disparate geographic
coverage is sufficiently related to the problem that it targets.” These
basic principles guide our review of the question before us.
59See Richard A. Posner, The Voting Rights Act Ruling is about the Conservative Imagination., SLATE,
June 26, 2013, http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/the_breakfast_table/features/
60Shelby County, 133 S.Ct. at 2631.
Umpires don’t make the rules, they apply them.”61 However, extending the
baseball metaphor, he announced in Northwest Austin the rule that “a
departure from the fundamental principle of equal sovereignty requires a
showing that a statute's disparate geographic coverage is sufficiently related
to the problem that it targets[,]”62 and then in Shelby County, applying that
rule, he called a strike-three against the same coverage formula in existence
during the earlier case. With these two opinions, the Chief Justice both made
a rule and applied it, and thus the principle was born in Northwest Austin
and raised in Shelby County.
Unequal Sovereignty Among the States, Under the Equal Footing Doctrine
Chief Justice Roberts’ majority opinion in Shelby County belies the
true history of an unequal sovereignty among the states. Not only was the
language of state equality considered and debated at the Constitutional
Convention, and then intentionally omitted from the text of the
Constitution,63 but of the states admitted after the original thirteen were
formed, nearly all had some condition or stipulation tied to their statehood
that did not apply equally to the other states.64 Moreover, slavery became a
defining trait, whereby states were admitted as “slave states” or “free states”
up to the time of the Civil War.65 Later, the period of Reconstruction would
end abruptly with the Hayes-Tilden Compromise of 1877, which allowed for
the legacy of non-enforcement of the post-Civil-War Amendments in the
61Confirmation Hearing on the Nomination of John G. Roberts, Jr. to be Chief Justice of the United States
Before the S. Comm. on the Judiciary, 109th Cong. 55 (2005).
62Northwest Austin, 557 U.S. at 203.
632 M. FARRAND, RECORDS OF THE FEDERAL CONVENTION OF 1787, at 454 (rev. ed. 1937).
64See Biber, supra note 12, at 120 (“Of the thirty-seven states admitted to the Union since the adoption of
the Constitution (plus the eleven Southern states readmitted after the Civil War), almost all of them have
had some sort of condition imposed on them when they were admitted.”).
65See id. at 127 (“And slavery, of course, was a major factor in the admission of states before the Civil
War.”); see also Steve Suitts, States’ Rights Resurgent: The Attack on the Voting Rights Act, SOUTHERN
SPACES, Aug. 29, 2013,
http://www.southernspaces.org/2013/states-rights-resurgent-attack-voting-rightsact#section1 (describing how “every time Congress considered acquiring new territory or adopting a new
state, [it] had to be declared ‘free’ or ‘slave.’”).
Southern states, ushering in a new era of racial oppression.66 These
inequalities among the states existed against the backdrop of the equal
At the beginning of the republic, there were thirteen states born of
colonization, followed by revolution, then confederation. With the eastern
part of the present-day continental United States divided into the original
states by the colonial settlers, the land to the west had yet to be converted.
Before new territories could be established, some of the land had to be ceded
to the federal government by the existing states, for the purpose of eventually
creating and admitting new states to the Union. This was accomplished by
compacts between the federal government and the original land-holding
states, enabling acts and other means to admit new states.67
The Commonwealth of Virginia ceded the land that would eventually
become the states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, and part of
Minnesota.68 But before the land, known as the Northwest Territory, became
these states, the Continental Congress adopted the Ordinance of 1784,
containing “the first specific use of the term ‘equal footing,’” to structure the
governance of the territories and lay the groundwork for statehood.69 This
was later replaced by the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, which became the
foundation for state admissions “on an equal footing,”70 notwithstanding its
article banning slavery71 and despite various selective conditions of statehood
imposed by Congress. Maintaining the illusion of an “equal footing” was so
important that “[s]ince the admission of Tennessee in 1796, Congress has
included in each State’s act of admission a clause providing that the State
66See supra text accompanying note 15.
67See Biber, supra note 12, at 128 (“The enabling act is important because it is usually the bill which spells
out the conditions that Congress expects the new state to meet before (and after) admission . . . .”).
68Digital History, http://www.digitalhistory.uh.edu/disp_textbook_print.cfm?smtid=3&psid=255 (last
visited Sept. 2, 2013).
69James R. Rasband, The Disregarded Common Parentage of the Equal Footing and Public Trust
Doctrines, 32 LAND & WATER L. REV. 1, 32 (1997).
70Id. at 33-34.
71Ordinance of 1787: The Northwest Territorial Government, art. VI, 1 U.S.C., XLIII, LVLVII (Office of
the Law Revision Counsel of the House of Representatives ed., 2006).
enters the Union ‘on an equal footing with the original States in all respects
Even as the new states were subjected to disparate treatment by the
federal government, the equal footing doctrine persevered and gained
political favor.73 “The historical record thus reveals that the equal footing
language arose out of a concern that if western territories were not promised
admission to the Union on an equal sovereign footing, insurrection from
within or influence from without could entice them away from the United
States.”74 Today, this historical denial continues with the birth of the
“fundamental principle of equal sovereignty,” despite the origins of an
unequal sovereignty of the states.
The Northwest Ordinance of 1787, including its language of “equal
footing” and the ban on slavery, was readopted by the United States in the
Act of 1789, in order to bind all states to its terms after the Constitution was
ratified.75 However, this did not deter Georgia in 1802 from ceding its
western lands with the stipulation that any state created out of this territory
would be subject to the terms of the Northwest Ordinance, except for the
Article banning slavery.76 Congress accepted this stipulation, paving the way
for the admission of Mississippi in 1817 and Alabama in 1819 as slave
states.77 The Constitution as ratified had no impact on the slavery status of
new states, with Kentucky admitted in 1792 as a slave state and Ohio in
1803 as a free state, “thereby making the Ohio River a natural dividing line
between the free and slave states of the country.”78
The 1850 Supreme Court case, Strader v. Graham, involved three men
enslaved under Kentucky law who entered the free state of Ohio and escaped
72Doctrine of the Equality of States,
http://law.onecle.com/constitution/article-4/22-doctrine-of-equality-ofstates.html (last visited Aug. 23, 2013).
73See Biber, supra note 12, at 123-24.
74Rasband, supra note 69, at 34.
75See id. at 33 n.130.
76See Pollard, 44 U.S. at 221-22.
77See id. at 226-27; Biber, supra note 12, at 202.
78The Northwest Ordinance of 1787 and its Effects, http://www.americanhistoryusa.com/
northwestordinance-1787-effects/ (last visited Sept. 2, 2013).
to Canada.79 The Court held that Ohio’s ban on slavery was based on the
Ordinance of 1787, and that no provision of the Ordinance was applicable to
other territories and the states once the Constitution had been adopted.80
For this argument, Chief Justice Taney referred to the Court’s 1845 case,
Pollard v. Hagan, and its discussion of the Ordinance and the applicability of
acts of Congress to other territories.81
Pollard v. Hagan and Coyle v. Smith are the two seminal equal footing
doctrine cases.82 In Pollard, the issue concerned navigable waters and the
submerged lands underneath, and whether Alabama acquired the title to
these lands within its borders upon admission as a new state, or the federal
government retained ownership under the enabling act for the pre-statehood
territory.83 The Court ruled in favor of Alabama and held that the state “has
been admitted into the union on an equal footing with the original states”84
and that “new states have the same rights, sovereignty, and jurisdiction over
this subject as the original states.”85 As mentioned in Strader, the Court in
Pollard also discussed the applicability of acts of Congress:
Every constitutional act of Congress is passed by the will of the
people of the United States, expressed through their
representatives, on the subject-matter of the enactment; and
when so passed it becomes the supreme law of the land, and
operates by its own force on the subject-matter, in whatever
state or territory it may happen to be. The proposition,
therefore, that such a law cannot operate upon the
subjectmatter of its enactment, without the express consent of the
people of the new state where it may happen to be, contains its
own refutation, and requires no farther examination.86
79Strader v. Graham, 51 U.S. 82 (1850).
80Id. at 96-97.
81Id. at 95 (citing Pollard, 44 U.S. 212).
82See Biber, supra note 12, at 175 (citing Coyle v. Smith, 221 U.S. 559 (1911) and Pollard, 44 U.S. 212).
83Pollard, 44 U.S. 212.
84Id. at 229.
85Id. at 230.
86Id. at 224-25.
Although the Court in Strader announced that the Northwest
Ordinance was not binding on new states outside the original Northwest
Territory, and therefore due to the equality of the states, also could no longer
be binding on the states formed within the Territory, and that the Ordinance
and its readopted 1789 version were nullified when the Constitution took
effect, Pollard stands for a different proposition. In its discussion of the
applicability of acts of Congress, the Court in Pollard acknowledged that a
constitutional act passed by Congress pertaining to any particular state or
territory, not necessarily upon its admission but also thereafter, is binding on
that jurisdiction.87 Furthermore, it is not a prerequisite for the state or
territory to expressly agree to be bound by the act in order to be subject to its
terms. Therefore, according to this reasoning and in contrast to the Strader
holding, the fact that Congress readopted the Northwest Ordinance of 1787
in the Act of 1789, after the Constitution was ratified, means that the terms
of the 1789 Act are applicable to new states and territories, insofar as the
terms do not conflict with the Constitution. Even if Strader’s holding were
correct, Congress continued to admit new states with terms derived from the
Ordinance, and since the distinction between free and slave states remained,
the nation continued to grow as a union of unequal sovereignties.
The explicit pronouncement in the Pollard opinion means that a
federal law is not per se unconstitutional by virtue of its differential
application upon the various states. Rather, a federal law that applies to a
particular state (and not necessarily others) will be binding on that state,
when the law is duly passed by Congress and otherwise constitutional. Coyle
stands for a similar proposition, that Congress may only impose those
conditions on a state’s admission that its powers under the Constitution
would allow it to impose upon other states.88 Both Pollard and Coyle support
the constitutionality of the targeted treatment of covered jurisdictions under
the §4(b) coverage formula of the Voting Rights Act. The propositions in
these seminal cases mean that the coverage formula did not have to apply the
§5 preclearance provision equally to all areas of the country in which it could
apply, that is, everywhere voter discrimination meets the criteria of the
88Coyle, 221 U.S. at 573-74.
formula, but that it may limit §5’s application to only certain areas as long as
§5 could be applied everywhere.
To make the argument for an “historic tradition” of “equal
sovereignty,” Chief Justice Roberts referenced both Pollard and Coyle.89 But
neither of these opinions supports the notion of a principle of equal
sovereignty invalidating the targeted application of federal law to select
areas of the nation. In his essay, The Dignity of the South, Joseph Fishkin
described how the Chief Justice even used creative editing of text in another
case to change its meaning, in order to affirm his professed principle:
In South Carolina v. Katzenbach, in 1966, the Court actually
considered and rejected this same argument against section 5 of
the [Voting Rights Act], holding that South Carolina's invocation
of a “doctrine of the equality of the states” posed no problem
because “that doctrine applies only to the terms upon which
States are admitted to the Union,” not to a statutory provision
like section 5. Rather audaciously, the [Northwest Austin] Court
quoted this very sentence from Katzenbach as support for the
idea that a ““doctrine of the equality of the states”
exists-concealing the part about how ““that doctrine applies only to the
terms upon which States are admitted to the Union” behind a
strategically placed ellipsis.90
Despite the Strader holding invalidating the Northwest Ordinance’s
ban on slavery, the nation continued to progress along this divide. While the
humanitarian tragedy of slavery is unquestionable today, at the time, newly
formed states where the ban applied, could not develop their respective
economies in the same manner as the states that benefited from the
aggregate labor of the enslaved masses. In states that maintained the
practice, “[p]owerful economic and political interests protected Black
89Shelby County, 133 S.Ct. at 2623; Northwest Austin, 557 U.S. at 203.
90Fishkin, supra note 16, at para. 4 (footnotes omitted) (citing Katzenbach, 383 U.S. at 328-29 (1966);
Northwest Austin, 557 U.S. at 203); see generally Suzanna Sherry, The Four Pillars of Constitutional
Doctrine, 32 CARDOZO L. REV. 969, 973 (2011) (“We should expect judges to straightforwardly and honestly
give the reasons for their decision. A lack of candor would allow judges to evade the rule of law because
they could reach their preferred results without confronting doctrinal inconsistencies, inconvenient facts
or legal sources, or powerful counterarguments.”).
slavery.”91 This basic difference between the states led the nation down the
path of war, as the Southern states asserted their sovereignty from the
North. Following their defeat in the Civil War, “[t]he readmission of the
Southern states was attached to a number of significant conditions, including
the ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment, and a requirement that the
suffrage of all state citizens who had voting rights under the Reconstruction
state constitutions--which provided for black suffrage--never be abridged.”92
“[T]he Military Reconstruction Act of 1867, which allowed former
Confederate states to be readmitted to the Union if they adopted new state
constitutions that permitted universal male suffrage, catapulted newly
emancipated slaves into an unmatched period of active democratic
engagement.”93 “Early Reconstruction legislatures were marshalled [sic] by
high levels of Black voters and deep political mobilization. For example,
voting turnout for Blacks in the early years of Reconstruction sometimes
reached as high as ninety percent.”94
In 1876, after a hotly contested Presidential election, what followed
was a notorious era of disparity between the Northern and Southern states,
in the name of states’ rights.95 The Hayes-Tilden Compromise of 1877
effectively ended the gains made under Reconstruction, when the close
election result was settled by the political compromise giving the presidency
to Republican Rutherford B. Hayes in exchange for the withdrawal of federal
troops from the South, paving the way there for non-enforcement of federal
civil rights laws, suppression of the Black vote and de jure racial
segregation.96 Professor Sumi Cho described how the former-Confederate
states used the courts to undo civil rights protections for their African
91john a. powell, The Race and Class Nexus: An Intersectional Perspective, 25 LAW & INEQ. 355, 363 (2007).
92Biber, supra note 12, at 143-44 (footnotes omitted).
93Sheryll D. Cashin, Democracy, Race, and Multiculturalism in the Twenty-First Century: Will the Voting
Rights Act Ever Be Obsolete?, 22 WASH. U. J.L. & POL'Y 71, 75-76 (2006) (citing Reconstruction Act of 1867,
14 Stat. 428-429, 15 Stat. 2-4, 14-16 (1867)).
94powell, supra note 91, at 375 (footnote omitted).
95See Suitts, supra note 65.
96See Cho, supra note 14, at 1606; Suitts, supra note 65.
American citizens, and the Supreme Court’s refusal to enforce the
Southern states sought to eliminate federal oversight of state
affairs because they fiercely opposed the juridical equality
suggested by the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth
Amendments and the Reconstruction Acts. Subsequent
nineteenth-century Supreme Court decisions similarly
announced neutral-sounding rationales such as “no private
constitutional rights,” “no special rights,” and “equal
application,” to defeat civil-rights legislation and newly enacted
constitutional protections. These cases all involved African
Americans, and the Court decided them in opposition to civil
rights, as necessitated by the Hayes-Tilden Compromise.97
Professor john a. powell discussed the movement among the Southern
states to amend their constitutions during post-Reconstruction, renewing the
fervor of state sovereignty in the South:
Constitutional conventions were held in Mississippi (1890),
South Carolina (1895), Louisiana (1898), Alabama (1901), and
Virginia (1902) for the purpose of removing Blacks entirely from
state politics. These conventions were made possible through
violence, fraud and other voting restrictions that overcame
initial resistance. In fact, many of these constitutions were
merely promulgated rather than submitted to the state at large
for ratification. The restrictions these conventions enacted were
neutral as to race, but had the effect of barring all Blacks and
many poor Whites through poll taxes and literacy tests.98
By the time the nation was thrust into the post-Reconstruction period
of what Cho referred to as the “racial-dictatorship era,” from the term coined
by sociologists Michael Omi and Howard Winant,99 unequal sovereignty
97Cho, supra note 14, at 1607-08 (citations omitted).
98powell, supra note 91, at 378 (footnotes omitted).
99Cho, supra note 14, at 1605, 1606 (citation omitted); id. at 1611 (“In the pre-civil-rights era, courts
played a key role in enabling unreconstructed whiteness. They developed neutral-sounding legal
already existed among the states, through admission conditions and
stipulations for statehood, placing some states on an unequal footing with the
others. “Conditions have been imposed on some of the earliest states to be
admitted to the Union and on the most recent, from Ohio in 1803 to Hawaii
in 1959.”100 “The history of admission conditions shows that Congress, at the
time of the very creation of new sovereign states that would become part of
the federal American government, has not considered the sovereignty of those
states to be the most important factor to be considered.”101
Not all conditions were unique to each state, but few applied
universally to every state.102 The imposition of certain conditions was
targeted towards certain territories, based on which social or political
characteristics of a given territory Congress wanted to tailor for admission.103
A review of some of these conditions brings to light that Congress, through
the different sets of criteria for the admission of different states, essentially
created unequal sovereignties entering the Union on unequal footing.
Louisiana (1812) was required to allow religious freedom, conduct
criminal trials by jury, and disclaim all unappropriated federal lands.104
Mississippi (1817) had to “guarantee that the Mississippi [River] would be a
common highway free from taxation or toll.”105 Michigan (1837) was forced to
cede any land claims it had in Ohio.106 Texas (1845) was annexed and
admitted by a joint resolution, which required that it “cede all military
fortifications, but allowed [it] to keep all public lands and required it to pay
its own debts from the independence period. It also required that any portion
of Texas north of the Missouri Compromise line be admitted without
doctrines to rationalize discrimination; created self-serving legal distinctions to enable limiting principles;
and crafted lofty, but thoroughly racially contingent foundational principles to define the nation.”).
100Biber, supra note 12, at 129.
101Id. at 194.
102See id. at 129-31, Table One (summarizing the conditions for every admitted state).
103Id. at 120 (“Basic civil liberties, language, religion, race relations, and the structure of the family and
marriage have all been elements that Congress has used as touchstones in attempting to reassure itself
that the new state will be a loyal member of a homogeneous American federal democratic state.”).
104Id. at app. (citations omitted).
105Id. (citation omitted).
106Id. (citation omitted).
slavery.”107 “West Virginia  was required to alter the timing of the
emancipation of slaves as a condition for admission.”108 Nevada (1864) was
admitted during the Civil War, on the condition that it banned slavery.109
Utah (1896) was “forever prohibited” from allowing polygamous marriages.110
Oklahoma (1907) was required “to prohibit the liquor trade in the former
Indian Territory for at least twenty-one years after admission.”111
“Restrictions on the lands and moneys granted to [New Mexico (1912)] for
various purposes were even stricter than in previous statehood laws; the
lands and proceeds from the sale and rental of the lands were to be held in
trust for the purposes for which they were granted.”112 “Hawaii  was
required to establish and maintain an agency to run the Hawaiian home
lands for the benefit of native Hawaiians.”113
Among the conditions of admission for a handful of states were
English-language preservation mandates found in no other state-admission
acts or compacts. The requirement to conduct all state government functions
in English was demanded of Louisiana.114 Public education to be offered only
in English was required of Oklahoma, New Mexico and Arizona.115 In
addition, New Mexico and Arizona required their state officers and legislators
to be proficient in English as a condition of statehood.116 Not only were there
no such requirements placed on other newly admitted states, neither was the
English language a mandate in the original thirteen states. In fact, no issue
of language arose unless territories considered for statehood already had
significant populations of residents who spoke languages other than
107Id. (citation omitted).
108Id. (citation omitted).
109Id. (citation omitted).
110Id. (citation omitted).
111Biber, supra note 12, at app. (citation omitted).
112Id. (citation omitted); see also id. at 162 (footnote omitted) (“Slavery was a factor in keeping New Mexico
from being admitted immediately in 1850--New Mexicans were not enthusiastic about permitting slavery,
but the South was not about to admit a free state New Mexico that would have blocked any expansion of
slavery to the West.”).
113Id. at app. (citation omitted).
114Id. (citation omitted).
115Id. (citations omitted).
116Id. (citations omitted).
English.117 Behind the appearance of maintaining cultural uniformity with
the rest of the nation at the time, was a deep-seated Congressional
xenophobia.118 Such conditions could only have arisen with the equal footing
doctrine, even in full bloom, as more of an ideal than a reality. “[T]he history
of admission conditions might indicate the Court should be taking a more
subtle, nuanced approach to its state sovereignty cases.”119
When the United States Congress readopted the Northwest Ordinance
of 1787 in 1789, it accepted the terms of the earlier enactment, including its
ban on slavery in new states. As the nation expanded its footprint westward
in the 1700’s and 1800’s, every exception made by the federal government to
that general ban on slavery diluted the doctrine of equal footing. Every
preadmission condition and stipulation between prospective states and the
United States, which did not apply equally to all the other states, effectively
relegated the relevance and effect of the doctrine to specific issues like
submerged lands and navigable waterways. The founding of the states with
the dichotomous legality of slavery created an inherently unequal sovereignty
among the states, and the collective denial about this basic difference
culminated in the Civil War. Reconstruction-era gains ended with the
HayesTilden Compromise of 1877, which reinforced the unequal sovereignty
between states by allowing the Southern states a de facto pass from enforcing
the post-Civil-War Amendments. By the time Chief Justice Roberts wrote of
the “historic tradition” of “equal sovereignty” in the Northwest Austin opinion
in 2009, there remained more of a tradition of citing the historic
equalfooting-doctrine cases as precedent, than an actual history of equality
between the states.
Shelby County’s Paradox
117See, e.g., id. at 196 (“New Mexico had to show progress in the Americanization and assimilation of its
118See id. at 198 (“[A]dmissions conditions have been used (to impose assimilation and homogeneity on
theoretically sovereign members of a Union) . . . .”).
119Id. at 124.
Whether a prospective state would be allowed to practice slavery was
an issue so germane to the agreements between the original territory-ceding
states and the federal government, that new states were admitted as either
“slave states” or “free states.”120 At the same time, the issue of slavery was so
incidental to statehood that the charade of the equal footing doctrine
remained largely intact, with states admitted “on an equal footing with the
original states in all respects whatever,”121 regardless of the slavery status of
a new state.122 This is akin to the hypocrisy of the founding fathers of the
nation affirming the words of the Declaration of Independence, that “all men
are created equal,”123 while many of them engaged in the practice of
enslaving other men (and women and children).124 The general category of
slaves and slavery was apparently deemed merely tangential to the ideals of
equality, as to men and states alike, so that while some states could practice
slavery and some states could not, all could subscribe to the equal footing
doctrine’s virtues with a straight face.
It would require an altered reality to transcend a history of demanding
or denying slavery as a condition of statehood under the color of an equal
footing doctrine, in order to apply a contemporary jurisprudence of
120Suitts, supra note 65; see powell, supra note 91, at 363-64 (quoting Eric Foner, The Story of American
Freedom 36 (1998)) (“The divide over slavery and the Constitution created a structure in which the states
became the primary political units and retained wide authority over internal matters. As such, the
federal structure, and the limited federal government erected by the Constitution, ‘insulated slavery in
the states from outside interference . . . .’”).
121Ordinance of 1787, art. V.
122See, e.g., Ohio Enabling Act, 2 STAT. 173 (1802) (“equal footing” applied to a free state); Alabama
Enabling Act, 3 STAT. 489 (1819) (“equal footing” applied to a slave state).
123THE DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE para. 2 (U.S. 1776).
124Encyclopaedia Britannica - The Founding Fathers and Slavery,
http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/1269536/The-Founding-Fathers-and-Slavery (last visited
Sept. 30, 2013) (listing the prominent founding fathers by slave-holding status, with 14 slaveholders
among the 21 listed); see also powell, supra note 91, at 364 (footnotes omitted) (quoting Eric Foner, The
Story of American Freedom 40 (1998)):
The contradiction between the ideal of personal liberty and the
existence of slavery was an uncomfortable ethical and philosophical
tension. Race emerged as the “justification for the existence of
slavery in a nation ideologically committed to freedom as a natural
right,” and the beginning of an enduring racialized ideology
ERIC FONER, THE STORY OF AMERICAN FREEDOM 36 (1998) (“In the first sixteen presidential elections,
between 1788 and 1848, all but four placed a southern slaveholder in the White House.”).
acknowledging the recent history of the “evils” of voter discrimination in the
South while embracing an “historic tradition” of equal state sovereignty.
This is a reason why the Supreme Court could not reach a holding that the
Voting Rights Act was unconstitutional, when it had the chance in Northwest
Austin in 2009, notwithstanding the yet unripe “fundamental principle of
equal sovereignty.” Only by obscuring the discrepancy between historical
fact and fiction could the Court elevate the “equal sovereignty” principle to a
“fundamental” stature with an “historic tradition.”
Shelby County sufficiently reframed the discrepancy between past and
present inequities and a presumption of equal state sovereignty as the norm.
First, there had to be repeated references to how times have improved for at
least one racial group protected by the Voting Rights Act.125 Second, those
improvements in voting by that racial group had to be credited to the Act
itself.126 Third, with the differences blurred between covered localities under
the Act and non-covered localities, with respect to the patterns of
discrimination prohibited by the Act, a claim could more palatably be made
that the equality of the states was and always will be sacrosanct.
Accordingly, in all the data cited by the Chief Justice to demonstrate how
voter registration and turnout have changed for the better for African
Americans in the covered states,127 the extent to which each protected group
has or has not yet been helped by the Act remains unclear from the analysis
in the opinion. In contrast, the evidence considered by Congress for the 2006
reauthorization of the Act pointed to the continuing need for federal oversight
of covered jurisdictions. Considering the harm to be protected by the Voting
Rights Act concerns discrimination based on race, color or language, it is
important to note that the only data referenced by the Chief Justice were
125E.g., Shelby County, 133 S.Ct. at 2619 (citation omitted) (“Census Bureau data indicate that African–
American voter turnout has come to exceed white voter turnout in five of the six States originally covered
by § 5, with a gap in the sixth State of less than one half of one percent.”); id. at 2625 (citation omitted)
(“[T]here has been approximately a 1,000 percent increase since 1965 in the number of African–American
elected officials in the six States originally covered by the Voting Rights Act.”).
126Id. at 2626 (“There is no doubt that these improvements are in large part because of the Voting Rights
Act. The Act has proved immensely successful at redressing racial discrimination and integrating the
127See id. at 2618-19, 2624-26.
registration, voting and election rates for African Americans and a general
category of indistinguishable “minorities,”128 with no mention of how
language-minority groups have fared. Meanwhile, the research suggests that
language-minority voters continue to experience discrimination at historic
The paradox in the Shelby County opinion is that racial discrimination
against voters occurring in some of the states, in the view of the
equalsovereignty adherents on the Court, represents an inequality between the
states rather than one created by the states themselves. Under this view, the
legal device targeting the voter discrimination in the covered states is
deemed to have sufficiently resolved the problem, thereby restoring the
equality between states, notwithstanding the continuing discrimination in
some covered and non-covered jurisdictions. This approach argues that
allowing the coverage formula to remain in place tips the scale past the point
of equilibrium among the states, thereby creating a new inequality between
them. The logic is simple, that insofar as the need for the remedy is
ameliorated, continuing to apply the remedy does more harm than good.
This framework for analyzing the voter discrimination, wherever it
occurs, is inherently problematic. In this model, there are just three possible
scenarios: (1) the covered states have higher rates of discrimination than the
non-covered states and the remedy is applied to the former, (2) discrimination
continues in the covered states, but at lower rates than in the non-covered
states, and the remedy remains in place as is, or (3) the same premise as
scenario 2, except the remedy no longer applies. Scenario 1 represents the
Voting Rights Act of 1965 and each reauthorization since then. Scenario 2,
the majority of the Court argues, is the pre-Shelby County situation that led
the majority to hold the coverage formula unconstitutional. Scenario 3
128Id. at 2618-19, 2624-26; see also Cho, supra note 14, at 1630 (quoting ANTONIA DARDER & RODOLFO D.
TORRES, AFTER RACE: RACISM AFTER MULTICULTURALISM 3 (2004)) (“The authors seem centrally concerned
with how the black-white dichotomies inherent in race relations ‘render the other racialized populations
129See Michael Jones-Correa & Israel S. Waismel-Manor, Verifying Implementation of Language
Provisions in the Voting Rights Act, in PROTECTING DEMOCRACY: USING RESEARCH TO INFORM THE VOTING
RIGHTS REAUTHORIZATION DEBATE 161, 177 (Ana Henderson ed., 2007) (“The preliminary findings of this
study suggest that there is significant noncompliance across counties covered by Section 203 provisions,
both in the provision of written materials for linguistic minorities as well as the availability of staff
assistance in languages other than English.”).
represents the post-Shelby County environment, where the remedy applies
nowhere without a coverage formula.
Goldilocks and the three bears would be dumbfounded to learn that
Chief Justice Roberts chose the porridge that is “too cold.”130 That is, of the
three scenarios, the Chief Justice and the majority selected scenario 3, which
neutralized the preclearance requirement (the remedy) while voter
discrimination continues to percolate throughout the states. The porridge
that is “too hot” is scenario 1, where the states committing the worst
discrimination are the ones that were the most directly regulated by the Act –
in the Court’s mind this situation is no longer warranted. The porridge that
is “just right” is scenario 2, because the built-in flexibility for coverage
allowed states and other jurisdictions to be included or excluded from the
preclearance requirement, by exhibiting track records of disenfranchisement
or voting rights compliance, respectively. Since jurisdictions ultimately
controlled their own fate with their behavior, it was “just right.”
The Shelby County opinion criticizes Congress for failing to update the
coverage formula after being warned in Northwest Austin in 2009,131 that
“the Act imposes current burdens and must be justified by current needs.”132
This equal-sovereignty focus on burdens to the jurisdictions demands a
justification for the Act’s imposition upon the states, shifting the burden of
proof from localities with recent histories of discriminatory voting schemes to
Congress’ current remedies for such discrimination. By framing the temporal
discussion on the currency of burdens and currency of needs, the historical
markers linking the offender jurisdictions are excluded from the
conversation. Any reference to the past as justification for anything in the
present is a nonstarter under this framework by the Chief Justice.
The fact is the Act does impose current burdens out of current needs,
but these include the need to stem historical patterns of voter discrimination
130See JOHN HASSALL, Goldilocks and the Three Bears, in OLD NURSERY STORIES AND RHYMES (1904).
131See Shelby County, 133 S.Ct. at 2631 (“But in issuing that decision, we expressed our broader concerns
about the constitutionality of the Act. Congress could have updated the coverage formula at that time,
but did not do so. Its failure to act leaves us today with no choice but to declare § 4(b) unconstitutional.”).
132Northwest Austin, 557 U.S. at 203.
within jurisdictions that continue to show trends of recurrence. The
historically worst-offending jurisdictions were the starting point for inclusion,
using 1972 as the latest baseline year set by the 1975 reauthorization. Chief
Justice Roberts narrowly assessed that “[c]overage today is based on
decadesold data and eradicated practices.”133 It was the original data from the 1965
Voting Rights Act that identified the states to be included under the coverage
formula then, and it was current ongoing data that kept those states within
its scope today. The historical data combined with new statistics was the
precise mechanism of the formula that led to the proper selection of the worst
offenders over time. If left unchecked over time, discriminatory behavior
becomes a discriminatory scheme and the effects become entrenched. The
impact on communities can last through generations of voters for every
tainted election, when considering United States Senators serve for six years
at a time, Presidents serve four to eight years, and together they confirm and
appoint federal judges and Supreme Court justices who serve for life.
Ironically, it is the very genius of the Act that the Chief Justice found
most objectionable. The §4(b) coverage formula was not concerned with
casting a wide net to bring within its scope all jurisdictions that have
engaged in one or two recent instances of voter discrimination – that is the
job of §2. The formula did not function like a thermometer measuring the
political temperature from moment to moment, but rather it was like a
weather satellite capturing longer-term patterns of change in the racial
climate. Chief Justice Roberts, quoting himself from Northwest Austin,
faulted the coverage formula for failing to evaluate “current political
conditions” and instead relying on a 1965 comparison of the states.134 The
efficacy of the coverage formula was that it monitored bad behavior over a
period of time, starting with the jurisdictions that had the worst track
records of racial discrimination in voting, at the inception of the Voting
Rights Act. These states and localities were examined under a current
shifting 10-year look-back period, which rewarded reformed jurisdictions with
opportunities to bail out of coverage. Since the latest baseline year of 1972,
jurisdictions have been released from coverage by maintaining clean track
133Shelby County, 133 S.Ct. at 2627.
134Id. at 2628 (quoting Northwest Austin, 557 U.S. at 203).
records,135 and others have been included for coverage due to patterns of
voting indiscretions within recent years.136 In the case of those localities
recently brought within the coverage of the Act, obviously no 1964 or 1972
voting procedure in these places factored into the equation – it had nothing to
do with “decades-old data.” Moreover, if jurisdictions were subject to
preclearance based solely on historical data, no covered jurisdictions since the
1960’s or 1970’s would have lost any §2 discrimination lawsuits, which is
simply not the case.137
In furtherance of the paradox in Shelby County, Chief Justice Roberts
ventured into “the different histories of the North and South,” to legitimize
the “comparison between the States in 1965.”138 The idea was that the
different histories of the Northern and Southern states allowed for the Voting
Rights Act in 1965 to address that specific difference in otherwise equal
states.139 In other words, if not for those different histories, the Act in 1965
would have been unconstitutional. The Chief Justice noted that “[t]he Court
invoked that history [of the South]—rightly so—in sustaining the disparate
coverage of the Voting Rights Act in 1966.”140 His statement acknowledges
135Id. at 2644 (Ginsburg, J., dissenting) (citation omitted) (“Nearly 200 jurisdictions have successfully
bailed out of the preclearance requirement, and DOJ has consented to every bailout application filed by an
eligible jurisdiction since the current bailout procedure became effective in 1984.”).
136Id. (citation omitted) (“Several jurisdictions have been subject to federal preclearance by court orders,
including the States of New Mexico and Arkansas.”).
137Id. at 2642-43 (Ginsburg, J., dissenting) (citation omitted) (discussing the findings of a 1982 - 2004
study of §2 lawsuits, which showed that “Controlling for population, there were nearly four times as many
successful §2 cases in covered jurisdictions as there were in noncovered jurisdictions.”).
138Id. at 2628 (“It was in the South that slavery was upheld by law until uprooted by the Civil War, that
the reign of Jim Crow denied African–Americans the most basic freedoms, and that state and local
governments worked tirelessly to disenfranchise citizens on the basis of race.”).
139But see powell, supra note 91, at 367 (citation omitted):
By 1860, only six percent of the Northern black population lived in
states in which they could vote (Massachusetts, New Hampshire,
Vermont, Rhode Island and Maine) and only half of eligible black
voters in these states actually voted due to white terror at the polls.
The white republic was also defended in state referendums. In the
North between 1840 and 1870, equality with Black people was
overwhelmingly rejected by white voters in 17 of 19 referendums.
Shelby County, 133 S.Ct. at 2628.
that the purported equal sovereignty of the states allows for their different
treatment for different histories. If it was the history of discrimination in a
particular state that in 1965 allowed the coverage formula to distinguish it
from other states, and not simply on the basis of “current political conditions”
at the time, there is no merit to the Chief Justice’s objection to the most
recent coverage formula which combines data from 1964, 1968 or 1972, with
current data, in order to differentiate the covered states from the others.
Even in light of the paradox of standardizing equality of the states above
equality of the people, the §4(b) coverage formula should have been held
Chief Justice Roberts derived his new “fundamental principle of equal
sovereignty” from the equal footing doctrine, which at its best has pertained
to specific issues such as state ownership of land underneath navigable
waterways, and at its worst has been applied unevenly to the admission of
new states, as most were admitted with individually tailored sets of
conditions. Whatever the particular issue, the underlying context of the
doctrine had always been the contention that new states are admitted on an
equal footing with the existing states. The so-called equal sovereignty
principle, in contrast to the equal footing doctrine, depicts a perpetual
equality of the states. This derivative principle of the equal footing doctrine
was invoked by the Chief Justice as its equivalent notion of the equality of
the states, and served as the basis for the majority of the Supreme Court in
Shelby County to hold the heart of the Voting Rights Act unconstitutional.141
As the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 reflected the myth of an equal
footing among the states, the Northwest Austin opinion of 2009 marked the
birth of a fundamental equal sovereignty principle based upon that myth.
Whereas the admission of the new state of Alabama in 1819 on an unequal
footing with other new states was under the guise of an equal footing
doctrine, the Shelby County, Alabama opinion in 2013 relaxed the constraints
141See Pamela S. Karlan, What Can Brown Do for You?: Neutral Principles and the Struggle over the Equal
Protection Clause, 58 DUKE L.J. 1049 (2009) (“[T]he Roberts Court . . . has adopted an understanding of
neutral principles that fundamentally undermines the Fourteenth Amendment’s commitment to full civic
against inequality in voting under the guise of the “equal sovereignty”
principle. This same state that was admitted as a “slave state” on the one
hand, and on the other hand, “on an equal footing”142 with other states
admitted as “free states,” ironically contains the county that just successfully
argued for its equal sovereignty with other jurisdictions, to allow for voting
restrictions free from federal oversight.
Even as history reveals an equal footing doctrine consistently applied
in name but not substance, out of its definition and case law, Chief Justice
Roberts has given birth to a “fundamental principle of equal sovereignty.”
Chief Justice Earl Warren in Katzenbach declared that “[t]he doctrine of the
equality of States . . . applies only to the terms upon which States are
admitted to the Union, and not to the remedies for local evils which have
subsequently appeared.”143 Yet disregarding this clear pronouncement by the
Court in 1966, the Roberts Court cited other parts of the Katzenbach opinion
to create a precedent for arguing that the Voting Rights Act infringed upon
the equal sovereignty of the states.
The opinion in Shelby County presents a paradox of the racial
discrimination against voters in some states as an inequality among the
states, as opposed to an inequality among the voters created by the offending
jurisdictions. Under this framework, any remedy for the voting
discrimination either aims to restore the equality between states by resolving
the subject discrimination, or creates a new inequality between them by
going too far. But the Act’s built-in flexibility, to release compliant
jurisdictions from coverage and include those with recent patterns of
discrimination, ensured that it would not go too far. In the opinion, Chief
Justice Roberts objected to the coverage formula’s reliance on “decades-old
data” to differentiate between the states, yet he acknowledged the legitimacy
of the “disparate coverage” of the Voting Rights Act in 1965 based on “the
different histories of the North and South.”144
142Pollard, 44 U.S. at 223.
143Katzenbach, 383 U.S. at 328-29.
144Shelby County, 133 S.Ct. at 2627, 2628.
When Congress reauthorized the Voting Rights Act in 2006, it
recognized the continuing need for federal preclearance of voting changes in
the covered jurisdictions. After Chief Justice Roberts issued his opinion in
Shelby County in 2013, what remained of the Act were the preclearance
requirement and nationwide ban on voter discrimination, enforced only by
lawsuits. Justice Ginsburg in her dissent, noted “that litigation under §2 of
the [Act] was an inadequate substitute for preclearance in the covered
jurisdictions. Litigation occurs only after the fact, when the illegal voting
scheme has already been put in place and individuals have been elected
pursuant to it, thereby gaining the advantages of incumbency.”145
Bolstered by a new era of fundamental equal sovereignty, states have
gained a presumption of innocence when implementing any voting changes.
The burden of proof has shifted from the discriminatory jurisdictions to the
Congressional remedy for the discrimination. States that were previously
covered by the Voting Rights Act have already mobilized to implement new
voting procedures.146 Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote in a letter once,
“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”147 In order for a new
coverage formula to meet the bar set by Shelby County, the remedy for
injustice anywhere must equally apply to the same injustice everywhere,
otherwise in a strange twist, the remedy becomes the injustice upon the