A Fugitive from the Camp of the Conquerors: The Revival of Equal Sovereignty Doctrine in Shelby County v. Holder
TOURO LAW JOURNAL OF RACE
Table Of Contents 0 1
III. County 0 1
0 Experimenting with Equality: Heightened Scrutiny After Shelby
1 The Equivocal Doctrine of “Equal Sovereignty of States”
1. The Equality of States: Built on Air? 2. Equal Footing: From the First Reconstruction to Revival in Coyle 3. Equal Sovereignty: From the Second Reconstruction to its Revival in Shelby County * Associate Professor of Law, Jindal Global Law School, National Capitol Region of Delhi India; Executive Director of the Centre on Public Law and Jurisprudence (CPLJ). LL.M., New York University School of Law (2001). JD, Northeastern University School of Law (2000); B.A. Hons. (Social and Critical Theory), New College of Florida. Thanks to Professors Priya Gupta and Rehan Abeyratne for detailed comments and special thanks to Prof. Anthony Paul Farley, who not only invited me to participate in this symposium, but also introduced me to the area of election law a decade a half ago when I assisted with research that culminated in a now-classic article about Shaw v. Reno.
THE REVIVAL OF EQUAL SOVEREIGNTY DOCTRINE
IN SHELBY COUNTY V. HOLDER
4. Critique of Conditionality: The VRA Wrongfully Coerces States 5. Critique of Selectivity: The VRA Wrongfully Targets States 6. The Expressive and Instrumental Functions of State Dignity and State Equality
7. Boerne Again?: Does Shelby County Inaugurate a New Standard of
8. Cloning Coyle?: Is this Equal Sovereignty a Hybrid of Equal Protection?
“Today is a triumph for freedom as huge as any victory that has ever been
won on any battlefield… It was only at Appomattox, a century ago, that an
American victory was also a Negro victory. And the two rivers—one shining
with promise, the other darkstained with oppression—began to move toward
-President Lyndon Johnson, upon passage of the Voting Rights Act (1965)1
“I cannot help but believe that the inevitable effect of [the Voting Rights
Act] which forces any one of the States to entreat federal authorities in
faraway places for approval of local laws before they can become effective is to
create the impression that the State or States treated in this way are little
more than conquered provinces.”
-Justice Hugo Black, Partly Dissenting from the Majority Opinion in South
Carolina v. Katzenbach (1966)2
Every narrative of conquest contains at least two stories.3 What the
conqueror may narrate as a triumphal story of progress, the conquered would
recount as the tragic defeat of a noble cause.4 But defeats are sometimes only
provisional, fortunes are reversed, and the victors’ most compelling accounts
of justice may slip through their grasp and change sides (to borrow a phrase
from Simone Weil) like a “fugitive from the camp of the conquerors.”5 At
least since Reconstruction, the implementation of voting rights in the United
States has shuttled back and forth between two opposing narratives of
conquest, embodying two different struggles for recognition: (1) the struggle
for dignity and equality accorded to historically disadvantaged minorities,
1 PUBLIC PAPERS OF THE PRESIDENTS OF THE UNITED STATES: LYNDON B. JOHNSON, 1965. Volume II,
entry 394, 811–15. Washington, D. C.: Government Printing Office, 1966 available at
2 South Carolina v. Katzenbach, 383 U.S. 301, 360 (1966) (Black, J., dissenting).
3 Ranajit Guha, A Conquest Foretold, 54 SOCIAL TEXT 96, 97 (1998) (According to Guha, “there is
no conquest that has only one story to it. It is made up of at least two-one narrated by the
conquerors and the other by the conquered.” … [F]or every narrative of triumph and hope told in
the conqueror’s voice there is a counternarrative of defeat and despair told by the conquered.”)
4 Id. See also WOLFGANG SCHIVELBUSCH, THE CULTURE OF DEFEAT: ON NATIONAL TRAUMA,
MOURNING, AND RECOVERY (2003) (Taking the examples of the American South after the Civil
War, France after its defeat by Prussia in 1871, and Germany after World War I, explaining
production of myths of the unworthy barbarous enemy, of the cultural superiority of the defeated,
and creating narratives of revanchism and renewal, for example).
5 SIMONE WEIL, GRAVITY AND GRACE 171 (Trans. Emma Crawford and Mario von der Ruhr) (1952,
2002). (“If we know in what way society is unbalanced, we must do what we can to add weight to
the lighter scale…we must have formed a conception of equilibrium and be ever ready to change
sides like justice, that fugitive from the camp of the conquerors”).
and (2) the struggle for dignity and equality accorded to states. In the case of
the former, a civil war was fought to emancipate and enfranchise an enslaved
population, recognition was extended through the amendment of the
Constitution; these purposes were frustrated by Jim Crow laws, and once
again vindicated by the passage of the Voting Rights Act (VRA).6 In the case
of the latter, Southern states struggled for self-determination; they were
defeated in battle and conquered through Reconstruction and after years of
resistance they were conquered again by federal courts and Congress,7 who
set about aggrandizing their power in the guise of empowering minority
populations.8 Despite their competing purposes, the two narratives are not
particularly different in form. They both agree upon a basic chronology, the
fact of oscillation, and make common gestures towards which camp could
claim provisional victory and which could claim defeat at any given point.9
For the most part, with intermittent bursts of violence and coercion, claims to
recognition were not played out on a battlefield, but within a single
constitutional order and in the framing of election laws.10 Rather than pins
on a battle map, the markers of victory and defeat have moved to the courts
6 Jack M. Balkin, The Reconstruction Power, 85 N.Y.U. L. REV. 1801, 1808-10. (Making a parallel
argument, placing the federal enforcement of minority rights at the very heart of the
Reconstruction Power, so that the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which bans discrimination in public
accommodations, is not only a legitimate exercise of Congress’s power to enforce the Fourteenth
Amendment; it is a paradigmatic example of that power.).
7 The votes for and against the Voting Rights Act were much more closely along state lines than
party lines, with opposition heavily and almost exclusively concentrated in states that would be
subject to the coverage formula, and which had historically belonged to the Confederacy. The
states in the House of Representatives who formed solid blocs opposing the passage of the Act
included were Alabama, Arkansas, North Carolina, Mississippi, and South Carolina. In the
Senate it was all of those states plus Louisiana, Florida, Georgia and Virginia. See "To Pass S.
1564, The Voting Rights Act Of 1965," available at
http://www.govtrack.us/congress/votes/891965/s78. To Pass H.R. 6400, The 1965 Voting Rights Act Of 1965" available at
8 J. MORGAN KOUSSER, COLORBLIND INJUSTICE: MINORITY VOTING RIGHTS AND THE UNDOING OF THE
SECOND RECONSTRUCTION (1999); J. Morgan Kousser, The Voting Rights Act and the Two
Reconstructions, in BERNARD GROFMAN & CHANDLER DAVIDSON EDS. CONTROVERSIES IN MINORITY
VOTING 141 (1992).
9 Of course, over time, the proponents within each camp might differ in the way they identify the
opposing camp, (“minorities” or “federal authorities” or in the 19th century “Republicans”) and
even themselves (“southern Whites,” “the South” or “states” or in the 18th and 20th century
“Republicans”). With each side defining themselves “the People” the meaning of the Constitution
is similarly divided among states’ rightists and Nationalists. See Akhil Reed Amar, Of Sovereignty
and Federalism, 96 YALE L.J. 1425, 1452 (1987).
10 LAUGHLIN MCDONALD, A VOTING RIGHTS ODYSSEY: BLACK ENFRANCHISEMENT IN GEORGIA 23
(2003) (in the summer of 1868, Georgia expelled 32 black representatives from their state
assembly, leading Congress to place the state under military rule).
11 Numerous writers have reversed Clausewitz’s famous dictum to observe, that “politics is the
continuation of war by other means.” See e.g., MICHEL FOUCAULT, “SOCIETY MUST BE DEFENDED”:
The Supreme Court’s recent decision in Shelby County v. Holder
belongs to the second of these contending narratives.12 The Court attempts
to give expression to a cause that has not been able to succeed either on the
battlefield or through popular representation, and found only fleeting support
in constitutional doctrine. At the time the VRA was passed, it made sense,
from a legislative point of view, to focus on “bad actors” (through a Section 4
“coverage formula”) and to put a burden on these proven offenders to
demonstrate their proposed laws would not discriminate (through Section 5’s
pre-clearance procedures). 13 Though the VRA survived a constitutional
challenge,14 each time it was amended,15 there remained an undercurrent of
discontent and an intuition, articulated through any number of constitutional
provisions and quasi-constitutional arguments, that the law posed a
significant intrusion on federalism and state sovereignty. Before Shelby
County v. Holder, there remained nine states and local governments in seven
other states 16 that were required to get permission from the Justice
Department or a Federal Court before they could change any law dealing
with voting. In the brief few months since Shelby County v. Holder, without a
coverage formula, many of them have already started experimenting with
laws that, if passed, will have a disparate impact on minority communities.
The possibility of massive disenfranchisement through legislation and local
LECTURES AT THE COLLÉGE DE FRANCE, 1975-76 15 (2003). Putting the matter a bit more precisely,
Elias Canetti describes electoral politics after a civil war: “But the two factions remain; they fight
on, but in a form of warfare which has renounced killing.” Nevertheless, writes Canetti, electoral
politics maintains “the psychological structure of opposing armies.” ELIAS CANETTI, CROWDS AND
POWER (Trans. Carol Stewart) 188-190 (1960, 1978). It may be noted that in some parts of the
world, such as India, political candidates do not say they “run for office” they say they “fight
elections”; political parties do not say they “contest” or “win” elections, they say they “take power.”
In the U.S. the metaphors of war and conquest are curiously missing from colloquial speech and it
their place we find the softer metaphors of sport. Still, no one who has watched the zero-sum
game of partisan politics in the U.S. will fail to recognize its bellicose character.
12 Shelby Cnty. v. Holder, 133 S.Ct. 2612, 2622, n.1 (2013).
13 This originally applied to states that had used a discriminatory voting law or method that was
in effect in November 1964. More recently, the formula was changed to key it to the situation as of
14 South Carolina v. Katzenbach, 383 U.S. 301 (1966); Georgia v. United States, 411 U.S. 526
(1973); City of Rome v. United States, 446 U.S. 156 (1980); Lopez v. Monterrey County, 525 U.S.
15 See Fannie Lou Hamer, Rosa Parks, and Coretta Scott King Voting Rights Act Reauthorization
and Amendments Act of 2006, Pub. L. No. 109-246, 120 Stat. 577; Voting Rights Act Amendments
of 1982, Pub. L. No. 97-205, 96 Stat. 131; Act of Aug. 6, 1975, Pub. L. No. 94-73, 89 Stat. 400;
Voting Rights Act Amendments of 1970, Pub. L. No. 91-285, 84 Stat. 314.
16 The jurisdictions most recently covered by section 5 are the states of Alabama, Alaska, Arizona,
Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas, and Virginia, counties in California,
Florida, New York, North Carolina, and South Dakota, and townships in Michigan and New
Hampshire. See 28 C.F.R. pt. 51 app. at 100-01 (2009). For a complete list of jurisdictions covered
by Section 5, See Civil Rights Division, U.S. Department of Justice, Section 5 Covered
regulations has returned for the first time since Voting Rights Act was
passed in 1965. For now it is unclear how the purposes of the VRA – to
prevent discriminatory laws- will be enforced.17
The Court’s decision, whose narrowest focus was on the
constitutionality of the pre-clearance formula in Voting Rights Act, also stood
in legal terms for a broader conflict over Congress’s enforcement power of the
Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, and in cultural terms for the
expression that a state is a bearer of rights to equality and dignity. The
provisional victory this time was to strike down the central provision of the
Voting Rights Act – which enumerated the states required to seek federal
pre-clearance. Opponents and supporters alike took note of the candor with
which it took aim at past offenders, often Southern states, and for this it had
been called the “Crown Jewel of the Second Reconstruction.”18
In this essay, I will argue that the real surprise in Shelby County was
not that such large stakes would be expressed in the opinion, but that the
essential core of the Act could be disposed of with reference to an obscure
principle — “equal sovereignty of the states”— with little stature in the
constitutional canon.19 After being rejected outright in the landmark South
Carolina v. Katzenbach (1966) decision, “equality of sovereignty” is first
mentioned as a “fundamental principle” in Northwest Austin Municipal
Utility District Number One v. Holder (Northwest Austin)20 and relied upon in
Shelby County as the rationale to strike down Article 4 of the VRA. 21 In
relying on Katzenbach for its holding, the Court audaciously cites as its
primary authority the very case that it is overturning. The majority’s
boldness in this regard has not gone unnoticed. 22 In Justice Ginsburg’s
17 Guy-Uriel E. Charles & Luis Fuentes-Rohwer, Mapping a Post-Shelby County Contingency
Strategy, 123 YALE L.J. ONLINE 131 (2013),
http://yalelawjournal.org/2013/06/07/charlesfuentesrohwer.html.; Heather Gerken,, “A Third Way
for the Voting Rights Act: Section 5 and the Opt-In Approach” (August 22, 2005). Harvard Public
Law Working Paper No. 118. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=788067 or
18 Pamela S. Karlan, Easing the Spring: Strict Scrutiny and Affirmative Action After the
Redistricting Cases, 43 WM. & MARY L. REV. 1569, 1594 (2002) (describing the Act as “the
crown jewel of the Second Reconstruction”). Karlan may be drawing upon President Reagan,
who after resisting some of the provisions extending the act in 1982, finally signed,
proclaiming the right to vote “the crown jewel of American liberties,” Reagan Signs Voting
Rights Act Extension).Washington Post, June 30, 1982, SA, at 1.
19 Shelby Cnty v. Holder, 133 S.Ct. at 2621. (“The Act also differentiates between the States,
despite our historic tradition that all the States enjoy “equal sovereignty”.”).
20 Northwest Austin Mun. Utility Dist. No. One v. Holder, 557 U.S. 193, 203 (2009).
21 Shelby Cnty. v. Holder, 133 S.Ct. at 9–17.
22Joseph Fishkin, The Dignity of the South, 123 YALE L.J. ONLINE 175, 177 (2013),
http://yalelawjournal.org/2013/06/08/fishkin.html. (“Rather audaciously, the NAMUDNO Court
dissent to Shelby, she comments that such a construction does “much
mischief.” 23 I will argue that the doctrine, as presented and largely
misrepresented by the majority, does a great deal of work for justices who
have a purposive goal of giving states greater autonomy notwithstanding the
strictures of the Civil War amendments.24
Like a player in a game of charades, the majority is quiet but insistent,
expressive and also focused on a message. In a series of gestures that are
difficult to miss even if they are silent, the court manages to do the following:
(1) it mischaracterizes and misapplies a precedent, Katzenbach, and
overturns it with no acknowledgement of this move, (2) it quietly revives and
expands an older notion of “equal footing” in part by renaming it “equal
sovereignty of states” and (3) it applies and inaugurates (again, without
saying so) a heightened scrutiny test. In this essay, I situate the current state
of these three phenomena - the line of cases regarding voting rights, the
doctrine of “equality sovereignty of states,” and the level of scrutiny- by first
excavating the history of the revived equality doctrine through the older idea
of “equal footing,” then exploring the expressive power of this decision, and
finally, by reading the Court’s likely intent regarding a future of the standard
of review through a close reading of the subtlety of what precedent it does
and does not rely on. The careful reading of this decision and its selective use
of precedent is necessary for us to understand how a minor jurisprudence
stoked carefully and patiently, can emerge fully formed in a decision of such
importance and far reaching consequence.
When seen as primarily an expressive statement about federalism, it
becomes clearer how it risks little and gains much. It seems to be about
federalism, but there is no reference to the relevant precedents; it seems to
require heightened scrutiny for states, but the reasoning is obscure. Without
specifying current jurisprudence on federalism, it expresses what “ought” to
be understood. The expressive function of this doctrine is its most important
function.25 If the doctrinal sources were obscure, its function and intention
was unmistakable. The majority may be committed to particular views on
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”).
23 Shelby Cnty. v. Holder, 133 S.Ct. at 2649 (Ginsberg, J., dissenting).
24 There are two kinds of dignitary harms that are possible in federal oversight of elections
redressed by “equal sovereignty”: that they are targeted (and thus stigmatizing) and that they are
punitive. Thus, the two critiques expressed by the Shelby County majority— (1) a critique of
selectivity, and (2) a critique of conditionality— are already familiar parts of a narrative of
25 Cass R. Sunstein, On the Expressive Function of Law, 44 U. PENN. L. REV.2021 (1996).
federalism, the separation of powers, and the benign racial classification in
an increasingly post-racial color-blind society, in which states could once
again experiment with their voting laws without Federal oversight.
“Equal Sovereignty of States”: An Equivocal Doctrine
1. The Equality of States: Built on Air?
Within hours of the publication of the Shelby decision, commentators
were scratching their heads over the reasoning for the result, specifically
Justice Roberts’s invocation of “equal sovereignty of the states” which he calls
a “fundamental principle.”26 Richard Posner countered that “there is no such
principle… it does not exist,” calling the doctrine an act of “conservative
imagination” and emphasizing that it is “built on air.” 27 Another
commentator called the doctrine “the Chief Justice's invention”28 and even
the most thorough scholarly account of the doctrine, locating its pedigree in
“equal footing doctrine,” still concludes that the Chief Justice’s version is a
Of all the purposes and principles that could be served, the emphasis
“equality of states” was an eccentric one. But seeing that the court was bent
upon creating such a doctrine, what is its function? The court consolidated
gains in more difficult battles, and recovered ground from past defeats, by
smuggling its concerns on the back of a relatively obscure doctrine the “equal
footing doctrine” whose scope and purpose is limited, one that originally
expressed the ideal by which states previously excluded from full
membership within the Federal system would become participants. In
Shelby, the dignity of the state is offended by being treated differently by the
Federal government from other states. Fundamentally, this is not a
26 “There is also a "fundamental principle of equal sovereignty" among the States, which is highly
pertinent in assessing disparate treatment of States.”
27 Richard Posner, SLATE.com (“This is a principle of constitutional law of which I had never
heard--for the excellent reason that…there is no such principle.”).
28 See e.g., Paul Abrams, “The Fifteenth Amendment Trumps the Tenth Amendment on Voting
Rights,” Huffington Post. July 1, 2013.
http://www.huffingtonpost.com/paul-abrams/the-Fifteenthamendment-trumps_b_3527256.html. (“But Equal Sovereignty is the Chief Justice's invention. It
is not in the Constitution and, if anything, the structure of the Constitution and the make-up of
the government it created show that there was no intention to accord states equal sovereignty”).
29 Zachary S. Price, NAMUDNO’s Non-Existent Principle of State Equality, 88 N.Y.U. L. Rev.
Online 24 (2013).
controversy “between states” but remains one of unequal treatment by
Federal law. Thus, though it still implicates federalism, more than any
previous claims about “state dignity”.30 But more than equal dignity, or even
“equal footing,” the goal was to establish the equivalent of an “equal
protection” analysis that could be applied to states. Once the generic
invocation of “equality” is made, the problem becomes one whose implicit
structure could draw upon equal protection analysis. We will return to the
attempts to create such a broad principle in a moment. First, we must
understand the narrower “equal footing” doctrine and the reasons such a
doctrine never took root in relation to voting rights issues.
Is it correct to say, with Judge Posner, that the equal sovereignty of
states is a constitutional principle, which simply “does not exist”? Though
text and original intent disfavor the very existence of an equal footing
doctrine, and Congress's power to admit states and determine the conditions
for their admission has generally been broad, the equal footing doctrine
emerges as a minor jurisprudence –beginning with Pollard's Lessee v. Hagan
(1845)31 and ending with Coyle v. Smith (1911)32 to apply certain limits to
Congress in this narrow area. 33 Under the "equal footing" doctrine, the
Supreme Court has held that Congress cannot impose conditions on a state's
entry that would place that state on an unequal footing with the existing
states. The narrow reading was confirmed by Katzenbach, but has now been
broadened considerably by Northwest Austin and Shelby County v. Holder.
First, the principle of state equality has not existed in constitution, but
in a different kind of tradition. There is, instead a much narrower concept
embodied in that the several states are equal in sovereignty and entitled to
equal treatment under the Constitution and that no state may be admitted to
the Union under more restrictive conditions. 34 The crucial question is not
30 Joseph Fishkin, The Dignity of the South, 123 YALE L.J. ONLINE at 175, citing Transcript of Oral
Argument at 41-42, Shelby Cnty. v. Holder. In the sovereign immunity context, the doctrine of
state dignity was delineated by the Court in Alden v. Maine, 527 U.S. 706 (1999). See also Evan
H. Caminker, Judicial Solicitude for State Dignity, 574 ANNALS AM. ACAD. POL. & SOC. SCI. 81
(2001); Peter J. Smith, States as Nations: Dignity in Cross-Doctrinal Perspective, 89 VA. L. REV.,
(Mar., 2003) pp. 1-107.
31 Pollard v. Hagan, 44 U.S. 212 (1845).
32 Coyle v. Smith, 221 U.S. 559 (1911).
33Eric Biber, The Price of Admission: Causes, Effects, and Patterns of Conditions Imposed on
States Entering the Union, 46 AM. J. LEGAL HIST. 119 (2004) at 125. See Debates in the Federal
Convention 1787 which Framed the Constitution of the United States of America Reported by
James Madison (Gaillard Hunt & James Brown Scott eds., 1999) at 487-88.
34 A more detailed account of non-existent doctrine and the actual doctrine of equal footing
Zachary Price, Shelby County v. Holder: The Voting Rights Act Doesn’t Need to Treat States
Equally, SCOTUSBLOG (Feb. 16, 2013, 2:23 AM),
whether there is equality between states, but whether there is a tradition of
deference to the states in certain matters. There was, until the
Reconstruction Amendments, a tradition of this sort, despite the fact that
such a principle cannot be located in the text of the Constitution or original
intent of the framers. Indeed, the framers at the Constitutional Convention
took care to remove “a provision that would have required all new states to be
admitted on an equal footing with the original states.”35 The doctrine finds no
home in the text of the constitution, though it is rhetorically allied to or the
Articles of Confederation. 36 Section 3 Article IV of the United States
Constitution, the Tenth Amendment and in constitutional principles.37 It also
has to be understood in light of the Reconstruction Amendments that limited
and contextualized its application throughout and after the Civil War. These
Articles and Amendments did not form a unified doctrine but played off of
each other at different historical periods, just as they do today. Article IV
says each state will have “a republican form of government.” This can be read
as a guarantee to the states that they may govern themselves without
excessive interference from the national government, or a requirement of a
minimal standard of government and participation guaranteed by the
Federal government against the states.38 At the time of the ratification of the
Constitution, including its Tenth Amendment, enumerated powers were
granted from the states to the federal government. These include Article I,
Section 8, where Congress’s powers are enumerated. According to Madison,
the Tenth Amendment is a truism, but added to restate the logic of the
document as a whole 39 Even so, with each subsequent amendment,
35 Biber supra note 33; the Debates supra at note 33.
36 Mumford v. Wardwell, 73 U.S. (6 Wall.) 423, 436 (1867) (footnote omitted).
37 Justice Kennedy specifies the name of the doctrine in the oral arguments to Shelby (“I don't
know why under the equal footing doctrine it would be proper to just single out States by name,
and if that, in effect, is what is being done, that seemed to me equally improper”). Equal footing
requires that "new states since admitted [to the Union be afforded] ... the same rights, sovereignty
and jurisdiction . . .as the original States possess within their respective borders."' In Pollard v.
Hagan," the Supreme Court applied the equal footing doctrine to hold that newly admitted states
acquired title to the riverbeds of all navigable waterways within their boundaries.' Mumford v.
Wardwell, 73 U.S. (6 Wall.) 423, 436 (1867) (footnote omitted). (Arguing “the foundation of the
equal footing doctrine is the tenth amendment”)
38 According to William M. Wiecek, “The guarantee clause is unique in that it is the only
restriction in the federal Constitution on the form or structure of the state governments. It
empowers the federal government to oversee the organization and functioning of the states. It
authorizes Congress and, perhaps to a lesser extent, the President and the Supreme Court to
superintend the acts and the structure of the state governments and to inhibit any tendencies in a
state that might deprive its people of republican government. Such a broad potential is rooted in
the vague and unqualified wording of the clause.” William M. Wicek the guarantee, 210 Clause to
Constitute (1972) Felix Frankfurter, "Some Reflections on the Reading of Statutes," 47 COLUM. L.
REV. 525, 537 (1947) (calling the clause “a sleeping giant”).
39 United States v. Darby, 312 U.S. 100, 124 (1941). “While the Tenth Amendment has been
characterized as a ‘truism,” stating merely that ‘all is retained which has not been surrendered,’
particularly the Reconstruction Amendments, the logic, and the content of
those enumerated powers, and those reserved to the states, changes. Also
throughout this period, less sweeping changes are made through the judicial
articulation of constitutional doctrine.
2. Equal Footing: From the First Reconstruction to Revival in
If in the modern period, as seen in a case like Shelby County,
federalism concerns were fought between the Tenth Amendment (which
seeks to protect the sovereignty of states by preserving their rights of
selfgovernment) and the Fifteenth Amendment (gives Congress authority to pass
laws to end the denial of voting rights based on race), federalism concerns
were fought out on different plane. Before the passage of the Fifteenth
Amendment, some of these concerns were embodied in a tension between the
Congress’s power to “Guarantee a Republican Government” and a state’s
“right” to be admitted on an equal footing to those who came before it. In the
nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the narrow “equal footing” doctrine
soon became central to how courts interpreted and conditions imposed on
state admission by Congress.40
Imposition of particular burdens on a minority of states by a
democratic majority is not a problem from the point of view of democratic
theory. The basis for the legitimacy of the VRA is on surer ground than the
imposition of the Fourteenth Amendment on a South, the imposition of the
Constitution on new states formed out of the territories, or the imposition of
the Constitution on later generations. 41 These were the problems of the
nineteenth century of which the equal footing doctrine was one small part.
The not-quite-constitutionalized Equal Footing doctrine, as definitively
articulated in Coyle (1912) states that Congress cannot constitutionally
impose a condition on the admission of a state that “otherwise would be
outside Congress's power to legislate for any other state.”42 The Supreme
[citing Darby], it is not without significance. The Amendment expressly declares the
constitutional policy that Congress may not exercise power in a fashion that impairs the States’
integrity or their ability to function effectively in a federal system.” Fry v. United States, 421 U.S.
542, 547 n.7 (1975). This policy was effectuated, at least for a time, in National League of Cities v.
Usery, 426 U.S. 833 (1976).
40Biber, supra note 33 at 200-08.
41 Christopher R. Green, Loyal Denominatorism and the Fourteenth Amendment: Northern-Only
Constitutional Authorship and Neglected Reconstruction History (August 28, 2013). Available at
42 Coyle, 221 U.S. at 573-74.
Court had developed the equal footing doctrine to address a particular
problem. Congress has constitutional authority to admit new states to the
Union and even has the power to impose conditions towards statehood. The
problem would arise if it could impose any condition it liked on the admission
of a new state it might use that power to create second-class states. While the
term “second-class states” may hold rhetorical significance for states who feel
they are differentially burdened by Federal regulation, the concept originally
embodied the literal possibility of sub-states or pseudo-states being carved
out of existing states or Western territories. These would, in effect, be held as
“conquered provinces” available for plunder by Federal authorities and
existing states. This fear of “leveling down” animated the equal footing
doctrine. As it happened however, the usual pattern was imposing
requirements for statehood that the state provide meaningful republican
form of government, which can be seen as “leveling up.” There were also
demands of loyalty (from the South) and conformity (from the West), but
these too were seen in the light of “guarantee of Republican form of
government.” These concerns are evident in two antebellum cases: one
involving New Orleans ordinance that allegedly violated the religious
liberties requirement of the Louisiana Enabling Act, 43 and another case
involved the enforceability of the ban on slavery in the Northwest
Ordinance.44 More typically, though, the doctrine concerned more practical
concerns where Federal jurisdiction was uncontroversial. Except for the two
mentioned above, every “equal footing” case that reached the Supreme Court
until Coyle v. Smith involved public lands, navigation of waterways, or
The rhetoric of “second-class states” resonates with those in the South
who believe they are continually subject to selectivity and conditionality. By
some accounts, prior to the Civil War, “federalism became the foundation of
the ‘equal footing’ doctrine, which protected slavery’s expansion.”45 During
the Reconstruction period, however, the doctrine was nowhere in sight. Prior
to the Civil War, Equal Footing was not yet constitutionalized but Congress
also did not explore take full advantage of its powers. It was eclipsed at the
43 Permoli v. City of New Orleans, 44 U.S. 589 (1845).
44 Strader v. Graham, 51 U.S. 82 (1850).
45 George William Van Cleve, “Founding a Slaveholders’ Union 1770-1797,” in JOHN CRAIG
HAMMOND, MATTHEW MASON, EDS., CONTESTING SLAVERY: THE POLITICS OF BONDAGE AND FREEDOM
IN THE NEW AMERICAN NATION, 124 (2011). (Claiming “federalism became the foundation of the
‘equal footing’ doctrine, which protected slavery’s expansion.”) (Application of Jeffersonian
philosophy “that new territories and states should enter the union on an equal footing with the
original states. Because each new jurisdiction had the right to decide its own political fate, it could
not be dictated to by Congress on an issue such as slavery.”) One might wonder then if the
Reconstruction Amendments might have abolished the equal footing doctrine completely.
time of Reconstruction, and when it was, disparate treatment was necessary.
Amendments adopted to end discrimination against freed slaves,
concentrated in one region of the country, and the adoption of these
amendments may have compromised the full participation of the states
particularly subject to the amendments. After the Civil War and attempts to
implement voting rights through ordinary legislation (or military orders), the
Reconstruction Amendments were expressly designed to limit state
sovereignty, granting Congress vast new power at the direct expense of the
states. 46 And not just any states. While they took cognizance of the fact that
Northern and Border States also attempted to disenfranchise Black voters,
the most forceful implementation as well as resistance was located in the
Southern States. In the First Reconstruction Act (1867), Congress refused to
re-admit the former Confederate states into the Union unless they amended
their constitutions to allow male citizen suffrage regardless of “race, color, or
previous condition.” 47 They further prevented states them from amending
their constitutions to deprive these citizen of the right to vote.”48 The “equal
footing doctrine” did not bar these conditions to re-entry to the Union. During
the Civil War and Reconstruction, admission conditions were used by the
Republican Party in an attempt to shape suffrage and citizenship rules to
guarantee black suffrage (and Republican political power) in both Western
and Southern states.”
Instead it retreated into the larger narrative of states’ rights and failed
to prevent Congress from imposing conditions on states for readmission to the
Union. As an early historian of the Fifteenth Amendment stated in 1909 (just
before the Coyle decision), before the Fifteenth Amendment’s passage, voting
rights were on thin ground because of a broad, if somewhat vague, theory of
state equality: “fear was freely expressed however that the theory of the
46 Fitzpatrick v. Bitzer (1976) that the enforcement clause of the Fourteenth Amendment allowed
Congress to abrogate a state’s Eleventh Amendment immunity from suit in federal court. The
Court in that case said that the federalism concern, Eleventh Amendment immunity, was no
concern at all, because the Fourteenth Amendment was designed to limit state sovereignty. If the
Fourteenth Amendment allows Congress to work around the federalism concern of the Eleventh
Amendment, surely it allows Congress to work around the federalism concern of the Tenth
Amendment and Article IV.
47 First Reconstruction Act (An Act to Provide for the More Efficient Government of the Rebel
States) ch. 153, 14 Stat. 428 sec. 5 (1867).
48 An Act to admit the States of North Carolina, South Carolina, Louisiana, Georgia, Alabama and
Florida to Representation in Congress, ch. 70, 15 Stat. 73. (1868); An Act to Admit the State of
Arkansas to Representation in Congress, ch. 69, 15 Stat. 72 (1868); An Act to Admit the State of
Virginia to Representation in the Congress of the United States, ch. 10, 16 Stat. 62, 63 (1870); An
Act to Admit the State of Mississippi to Representation in the Congress of the United States, ch.
19, 16 Stat. 67, 68 (1870); An Act to Admit the State of Texas to Representation in the Congress of
the United States, ch. 39, 16 Stat. 80, 81 (1870).
equality of the states was too deeply rooted in our constitutional system ever to
make the observance of such a condition practically enforceable.”49 Thus the
Fifteenth Amendment was expressly designed to supply “a new basis for the
continuance of congressional control over the suffrage conditions of the
Southern States. This basis could be surely and safely supplied only by
means of a new grant of power from the nation in the form of a suffrage
amendment to the Constitution which should contain the authorization to
Congress to enforce its provisions.” 50 The articulation of “state equality,”
however, was specifically overridden during the passage of the
Reconstruction Amendments, and in any case has failed to take root beyond
the narrow concern of the admission of states. In neither case did the Court
ask whether Congress had treated similarly situated states differently; it
simply asked whether Congress had exercised a valid federal power.51
This contending principle of equality, the very one the Fifteenth
Amendment was expressly introduced to displace, was not one “between
states,” except in the sense that the Federal government was seen as acting
on behalf of sectional interests in enforcing its mandates on certain states.
The 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 suffrage52 never be abridged. Three of the Southern states
were given additional conditions: a requirement that blacks not be excluded
from public office,53 and a requirement that the states not reduce any rights
blacks might have to public education under their existing Reconstruction
constitutions. This requirement was in part prompted by the Georgia
49 JOHN MABRY MATHEWS, LEGISLATIVE AND JUDICIAL HISTORY OF THE FIFTEENTH AMENDMENT 18
50 Id. at 21.
51 In United States v. Sandoval, the Court upheld admission conditions designating certain areas
of New Mexico as Indian country because such action was “within the regulating power of
Congress.” In Stearns v. Minnesota, the Court upheld admissions conditions requiring the state
to preserve certain tax breaks on federal land ceded to the new state, because those conditions
could just as well have been imposed in a land cession to any other state.
52 First Reconstruction Act, ch. 153, 14 Stat. 428 (1867); An Act to Admit the States of North
Carolina, South Carolina, Louisiana, Georgia, Alabama and Florida to Representation in
Congress, ch. 70, 15 Stat. 73. (1868); see also An Act to Admit the State of Arkansas to
Representation in Congress, ch. 69, 15 Stat. 72 (1868).
53 An Act to Admit the State of Virginia to Representation in the Congress of the United States,
ch. 10, 16 Stat. 62, 63 (1870); see also An Act to Admit the State of Mississippi to Representation
in the Congress of the United States, ch. 19, 16 Stat. 67, 68 (1870); An Act to Admit the State of
Texas to Representation in the Congress of the United States, ch. 39, 16 Stat. 80, 81 (1870).
legislature's regression after readmission to exclude of all black legislators
since the state constitution did not explicitly give blacks the right to hold
public office. Georgia's action led to its continued exclusion from Congress
and the threat of a re-imposition of military rule, until the state legislature
backed down and readmitted the black legislators, as well as excluding
legislators who could not pass the test oath requirements.54 Congress also
required Georgia to ratify the Fifteenth Amendment in order to be
Clearly, undeterred by any notion of “equal footing” Congress believed
self-government could be revoked or withheld when believed that the
residents of the territory could not be trusted with self-government. The
analogy to conquest is not inappropriate when put alongside
nonReconstruction examples: the only other significant example of Congress
restricting self-government for future states was in the territory of Utah from
the 1870s through 1890s. In addition, New Mexico and California were both
governed for a few years by military governments after their conquest in the
Mexican War, and both Orleans and Florida was governed briefly by the
military after their purchase.55
The fact that Southern states were both targeted and coerced is not
only a part of the narrative of the Conquered. Defenders of the process by
which the Reconstruction Amendments passed are unapologetic about its
necessary selectivity as well as its coercive aspect: According to Akhil Amar,
aligning his defense of the Reconstruction Amendments to a more recent
defense of VRA: “the Fourteenth Amendment was itself adopted by a process
in which certain states were subject to a kind of selective preclearance.56 In a
parallel register, drawing on his peculiar notion of “higher lawmaking,” Bruce
Ackerman has argued that the most extraordinary departures from norms of
equality would have been extra-constitutional but justifiable, as when the
ratification of the Reconstruction Amendments did not conform to the process
54 See ALAN CONWAY, THE RECONSTRUCTION OF GEORGIA 166-190 (1966).
55 See JACK ERICSON EBSEN, THE FIRST AND SECOND UNITED STATES EMPIRES: GOVERNORS AND
TERRITORIAL GOVERNMENT 17 84-1912, At 153 (1968).
56 Akhil Amar, The Lawfulness of Section 5 — and Thus of Section 5, 126 HARVARD L. REV. FORUM
109, 113 In the very process by which section 5 and the rest of the Fourteenth Amendment were
adopted, certain states with sorry electoral track records were obliged to get preapproval from
federal officials in order to do things that other states with cleaner electoral track records were
allowed to do automatically. But it would be preposterous to say that section 5 of the Fourteenth
Amendment was itself illegal.” section 5 of the Fourteenth Amendment itself unconstitutional? A
mixed state of legal, political and military conquest spanned across a nine-year period from the
outbreak of the War, its conclusion, the readmission of all the Confederate states, and the
ratification of the Reconstruction Amendments.
prescribed by Article V, with all the states as equal participants.57 Others
have debated the degree to which these conformed to a valid Amendment
making process. What is unmistakable, however, is that whether described in
the language of constitutionalism, war or international law, there is an
aspect of fait accompli.
The context was again transformed with the passage of the
Reconstruction Amendments. And there are further consequences that haunt
the undertaking to rejoin the Union. When, after the Civil War the states and
people took the extraordinary step of Amending the Constitution, they ceded
to the central government other enumerated powers, thus adding to
Congress's enumerated powers, the powers to abolish and prevent slavery
(XIII), enforcement of due process, and equal protection of the laws (XIV),
and preventing voting rights from being denied or abridged on the basis of
race or color (XV). Our understanding of the Tenth Amendment must change
with each subsequent amendment, and thus among the powers ceded by the
States and given to Congress. It must be admitted that this was not without
coercion by the Union and resistance by the former Confederate states.
Certainly with the passage of the Fifteenth Amendment, whatever residual
power the states may have had over ensuring that voting rights are protected
regardless of race or color, it was no longer “reserved to the states,” but
became a power of the central government. The Fifteenth Amendment
created an additional enumerated power. “As such, it ‘amended’ the Tenth
Amendment,” 58 providing Congress rather than either the States or the
people, with the power to ensure that voting was neither denied nor abridged
on account of race or color. 59 The language Section 2 of the Fifteenth
Amendment Congress shall have the power to enforce this article by
appropriate legislation mirrors precisely Article I, Section 8, where
Congress's powers, are enumerated.
With the passage of the Reconstruction Amendments, the notion of a
broad “equal protection” for states failed to take root, and the applicability of
“equal footing” had to be construed as sufficiently narrow to allow the
implementation of those Amendments.
A generation after Reconstruction, however, a narrow doctrine
re57 BRUCE ACKERMAN, WE THE PEOPLE: TRANSFORMATIONS 99-119 (1998).
58 Paul Abrams, “The Fifteenth Amendment Trumps the Tenth Amendment on Voting Rights,”
Huffington Post. July 1, 2013.
59 Section 1. The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by
the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.
Section 2. The Congress shall have the power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.
asserted itself just as it was becoming increasingly obsolete. Justice Horace
H. Lurton argued that: "this Union" “was and is a union of States, equal in
power, dignity and authority, each competent to exert that residuum of
sovereignty not delegated to the United States by the Constitution itself.” It
was developed by the U.S. Supreme Court in Coyle v. Smith.60 At issue in
Coyle was Congress' attempt to condition Oklahoma's admission into the
Union on its agreement to locate the state capital in Guthrie and to accept
certain limitations on its power to change its seat of government. Although
the U.S. Supreme Court could find no constitutional language prohibiting the
use of such conditions by the Congress, it “read the unwritten tradition of
state equality into the Constitution.”61 Justice Horace H. Lurton, writing for
the majority, reasoned:
[T]he constitutional equality of the states is essential to
the harmonious operation of the scheme upon which the Republic
was organized. When that equality disappears we may remain a
free people, but the Union will not be the Union of the
In Coyle v. Smith, the Court held that Oklahoma could move its state
capital even though the move violated a condition in its admission statute.
The “power to locate its own seat of government,” the Court reasoned, is a
state power, not a federal power, so Congress could not prevent Oklahoma
from moving its capital after it was admitted as a state. Since the
Reconstruction Acts were never challenged using Equal Footing doctrine, this
remains the closest analogy to the “differential treatment” imposed by the
VRA. And it is an analogy explicitly rejected in Katzenbach. More often, the
doctrine was applied in contexts concerning the ownership of the submerged
lands beneath navigable waters. Here, and sometimes to the detriment of
states, are assumed to be transferred to all states upon entry into the Union,
since those attributes were inherited by the original thirteen states upon
independence. 63 This includes that even with such a doctrine, disparate
treatment is fine. Here, the analogy to voting rights would be even more
strained. “Coyle might have had serious repercussions earlier in the
nineteenth century when conditional admissions had been used to guarantee
conformity and compatibility among the states as well as to protect federal
interests.” As William Wiecek notes, the decision “cast serious doubt on one of
60 221 U.S. 559 (1911).
61 Michael C. Tolley and Bruce A. Wallin, Coercive Federalism and the Search for Constitutional
Limits, 25 PUBLIUS 73 (1995).
62 Coyle v. Smith, 221 U.S. 559, 580 (1911).
63 Pollard, 44 U.S. at 228-29.
the most important means of enforcing Reconstruction.” But of course, the
point is academic: Coyle came “more than a generation after Reconstruction
Perhaps traces of the equal footing doctrine remain in the Southern
memory because the states were not subject to a single standard for
admission as a state, but a process of readmission to the Union. The terms of
admission for any of the states would have involved some degree of unequal
bargaining power. Each of the territories aspiring to the benefits of statehood
were subjected to conditions by an already powerful federal government. In
this sense, it is unsurprising that the federal government would be able to
guarantee its property interests, and impose certain limitations on state
The real question of Federalism is not whether there is equality
between states, but whether there is a tradition of deference to the states in
certain matters, and whether the language of equality was a part of this
tradition. There was, until the Reconstruction Amendments, a tradition of
this sort when Congress did not explore or take full advantage of its powers.
It was definitively ended at the time of Reconstruction, and when it was,
disparate treatment was necessary. Amendments adopted to end
discrimination against freed slaves, concentrated in one region of the country,
and conditions for readmission to the Union were imposed on the states that
Although all states have been unequal to the power of the Federal
government at the time of admission (or re-admission) to the Union, the
factual claim that additional burdens were placed on Southern states at the
time seems clear enough. More distantly, the analogy between the
Reconstruction amendments and the VRA can even be sustained. Thus, from
a moral point of view, the narrative of “disparate treatment” and “denial of
equal protection” make sense in a strictly colloquial sense. As a legal matter,
however, as discussed below in greater detail, the application of “equal
protection” or “disparate treatment” analysis to states, has failed time and
3. Equal Sovereignty: From Second Reconstruction to a Revival
64 Wiecek supra note 38.
65 PETER S. ONUF, STATEHOOD AND UNION (1987); Peter S. Onuf, New State Equality: The
Ambiguous History of a Constitutional Principle, 18 PUBLIUS 53 (1988); Peter S. Onuf,
Territories and Statehood, in ENCYCLOPEDIA OF AMERICAN POLITICAL HISTORY 83 (Jack P. Greene,
ed. 1984). Biber, supra note 33 at 119 (2004).
in Shelby County
A century of resistance came to a legal end with the passage of the Voting
Rights Act and at least the narrative of the descendants of slaves and those of
the country as a whole “began to move toward one another.” But parts of the
country were still recalcitrant. This recalcitrance was expressed in legal
terms in South Carolina v. Katzenbach (1966) the court recognized the
ingenious defiance of certain states,66 and could not have failed to appreciate
the ingenuity with which South Carolina constructed its legal challenge as
well: 67 On the coverage formula, “they argue that the coverage formula
prescribed in § 4(a)-(d): (1) “Violates the principle of the equality of States,”
(2) “Denies due process by employing an invalid presumption and by barring
judicial review of administrative findings, (3) Constitutes a forbidden bill of
attainder, (4) Impairs the separation of powers by adjudicating guilt through
legislation; and (5) “Abridge[s] due process by limiting litigation to a distant
forum.”68 On Preclearance, they claimed that the review of new voting rules
required in § 5: (1) Infringe(s) Article III by directing the District Court to
issue advisory opinions. (2) Abridge(s) due process by limiting litigation to a
distant forum.” In Katzenbach, the court summarily dismissed most of these
arguments, noting that:
A State is not a "person" within the meaning of the Due Process
Clause of the Fifth Amendment; The word "person" in the
context of the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment
cannot, by any reasonable mode of interpretation, be expanded
to encompass the States of the Union, and, to our knowledge,
this has never been done by any court.” “nor does it have
standing to invoke the Bill of Attainder Clause…” or other
claims “which exist only to protect private individuals or
66 383 U.S. 301, 328-29 (1966).
67 They contend that the assignment of federal examiners authorized in § 6(b) abridges due
process by precluding judicial review of administrative findings, and impairs the separation of
powers by giving the Attorney General judicial functions; also that the challenge procedure
prescribed in § 9 denies due process on account of its speed.
68 Finally, South Carolina and certain of the amici curiae maintain that §§ 4(a) and 5, buttressed
by § 14(b) of the Act, “abridge due process by limiting litigation to a distant forum.”
69 383 U.S. 323-324. These provisions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 are challenged on the
fundamental ground that they exceed the powers of Congress and encroach on an area reserved to
the States by the Constitution. (“South Carolina and certain of the amici curiae also attack
specific sections of the Act for more particular reasons. They argue that the coverage formula
prescribed in § 4(a)-(d) violates the principle of the equality of States, denies due process by
employing an invalid presumption and by barring judicial review of administrative findings,
constitutes a forbidden bill of attainder, and impairs the separation of powers by adjudicating
State of S.C. v. Katzenbach, 383 U.S. 301, 323-324 (1966)
The court takes more time with the equality claim. It would have been
implausible to take the language of the equal protection clause and apply it to
the equal protection of states. Located in the first section of the Fourteenth
Amendment, the clause addresses states and says “no state shall…deny to
any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”70 Yet this
was precisely what South Carolina attempted by citing the “equal footing
doctrine.” The Katzenbach court called their bluff.
The Court has said time and again that racial discrimination by the
states, particularly when it concerns the fundamental right to vote, violates
the Constitution. The court in Katzenbach noted “unremitting and ingenious
defiance in certain parts of the country.”71 In Katzenbach, the state of South
Carolina was also ingenious in its legal arguments. Whereas the provisions of
the Voting Rights Act of 1965 are challenged on the fundamental ground that
they exceed the powers of Congress and encroach on an area reserved to the
States by the Constitution, the court noted:
South Carolina and certain of the amici curiae also attack specific
sections of the Act for more particular reasons. They argue that the
coverage formula prescribed in § 4(a)-(d) violates the principle of the
equality of States, denies due process by employing an invalid
presumption and by barring judicial review of administrative findings,
constitutes a forbidden bill of attainder, and impairs the separation of
powers by adjudicating guilt through legislation
Prior to this argument, couched among others, equal footing doctrine had
guilt through legislation. They claim that the review of new voting rules required in § 5 infringes
Article III by directing the District Court to issue advisory opinions. They contend that the
assignment of federal examiners authorized in § 6(b) abridges due process by precluding judicial
review of administrative findings, and impairs the separation of powers by giving the Attorney
General judicial functions; also that the challenge procedure prescribed in § 9 denies due process
on account of its speed. Finally, South Carolina and certain of the amici curiae maintain that §§
4(a) and 5, buttressed by § 14(b) of the Act, abridge due process by limiting litigation to a distant
forum. Some of these contentions may be dismissed at the outset. The word "person" in the
context of the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment cannot, by any reasonable mode of
interpretation, be expanded to encompass the States of the Union, and, to our knowledge, this has
never been done by any court”).
70 “No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of
citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property,
without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of
71 State of S.C. v. Katzenbach, 383 U.S. 303.
never been the argument that “equal protection” applied to states.72
“Disparate treatment” can be challenged under equal protection analysis,
which requires heightened scrutiny for laws discriminating against discrete
and insular minorities. States, however, have never been the subjects of
equal protection analysis. The notion that states qualify for equal protection
was rejected out of hand by the court in Katzenbach. So was the more limited
claim that states were entitled to “equal sovereignty” under the equal footing
doctrine as articulated under Coyle v. Oklahoma, the narrow rule that new
states enter the Union on an equal footing with their predecessors. 73 South
Carolina v. Katzenbach confined Coyle to its facts, declaring that the equality
rule limits Congress only with respect to the admission of states, the coverage
provisions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 were not barred by any “doctrine
of the equality of States, invoked by South Carolina” “for that doctrine
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.” 74
Stating that South Carolina v. Katzenbach has limited Coyle to the narrow
holding that Congress must treat states equally in admitting them).75
Between Katzenbach76 and Shelby County, in a period that included
landmark cases both on both sides of the Federal/States rights question, the
precise argument that states are entitled to equal protection never emerged
in the Supreme Court’s jurisprudence. But more often than not, even for
those who promote state’s rights as against the federal government, the
“equality” aspect has been redundant in federalism. Some have argued that
72 Zachary S. Price, NAMUDNO’s Non-Existent Principle of State Equality, 88 N.Y.U. L. Rev.
Online 24 (2013).
http://www.nyulawreview.org/sites/default/files/NYULawReviewOnline-88-1Price_0.pdf (“[T]he equal footing doctrine doesn’t support the idea that otherwise valid federal
legislation treating states unequally is suspect”).
73 The Supreme Court developed the equal footing doctrine to address a particular problem.
Congress has constitutional authority to admit new states to the Union, but if it could impose any
condition it liked on the admission of a new state, it might use that power to create second-class
states. In other words, it might disadvantage new states by impairing their sovereignty in ways
that it couldn’t have done for the old states. To prevent such discrimination against new states,
the Court held that congressional conditions on a state’s admission to the Union are enforceable
only if Congress could have imposed them on an existing state. So, for example, in Coyle v. Smith,
the Court held that Oklahoma could move its state capital even though the move violated a
condition in its admission statute. The “power to locate its own seat of government,” the Court
reasoned, is a state power, not a federal power, so Congress could not prevent Oklahoma from
moving its capital after it was admitted as a state.
74 South Carolina v. Katzenbach, 383 U.S. 301, 328-29 (1966).
75 See e.g., LAURENCE H. TRIBE, AMERICAN CONSTITUTIONAL LAW at 378-397.
76 South Carolina v. Katzenbach, 383 U.S. 301, 328-29 (1966) (upholding provision of Voting
Rights Act that provides stricter review of voting laws in Southern states against challenge that it
violates "equal footing" doctrine.
stands as a precedent that supports current Supreme Court jurisprudence
that the federal government lacks the power to "compel the States to enact or
administer a federal program.”77 In a couple of federalism cases, however,
Coyle was cited, though not for the proposition of “equality of states.” In other
cases, state dignity has been formulated without reference to Coyle.
a. Coyle Cited for Purposes other than Equal Sovereignty
Coyle has not proved dispositive in any case up to this point “sovereign
equality” was not treated as a substantive limitation upon federal power.
National League of Cities v. Usery, famously held that federal regulation of
state employee wages under the Fair Labor Standards Act intrudes so much
on “traditional governmental functions” that it violates the Tenth
Amendment).78 (relying in part on Coyle).
On appeal to the Second Circuit Court of Appeals, counsel for New
York in New York v. United States79 argued that, even after Garcia v. San
Antonio Metropolitan Transit Authority,80 the equality rule was at least one
substantive limitation upon federal power, though picked up for some
rhetorical flourish in her opinion for the U. S. Justice O'Connor Supreme
Court, cited Coyle:
While Congress has substantial powers to govern the
Nation directly, including in areas of intimate concern to the
States, the Constitution has never been understood to confer
upon Congress the ability to require the States to govern
according to Congress’ instructions.81
-Coyle v. Oklahoma, 221 U.S. 559, 565 (1911)
Coyle is cited here, but not for the “equality” but a broader
“anticoercion principle.” Michael C. Tolley and Bruce A. Wallin have argued
“Justice O'Connor had been interested in the Coyle doctrine for some time.”82
77 Bradford R. Clark, Translating Federalism: A Structural Approach, 66 GEO. WASH. L. REV.
1161, 1195-96 (1998) (arguing that Coyle stands as a precedent that supports current Supreme
Court jurisprudence that the federal government lacks the power to "compel the States to enact or
administer a federal program”).
78 National League of Cities v. Usery, 426 U.S. 833, 845-46 (1976).
79 942 F.2d 114, 120 (2d Cir 1991).
80 Garcia v. San Antonio Metropolitan Transit Authority 469 U.S. 528, 556, 574 (1985) (overruling
National League of Cities).
81 See Coyle v. Oklahoma, 221 U.S. 559, 565 (1911).
82 Michael C. Tolley and Bruce A. Wallin, Coercive Federalism and the Search for Constitutional
Limits, 25 PUBLIUS 73 (1995) (least specific of several theories attacking unequal burdens imposed
by unfunded mandates).
Apparently dissatisfied with the way the Court in Justice O'Connor set out to
restore the doctrine to its pre-1966 status.83
Because of its holding limiting the power of Congress to impose
conditions on newly-admitted states, it has been cited by the Supreme Court
as an important example of the basic nature of state sovereignty in the
federal system, and of its core, inviolable features, First cited in her dissent
in Garcia, the equality rule of Coyle reappeared again, this time in her
opinion for the Court in New York v. United States.84 Although the equality
rule may be more suited to evaluating the claim by states that unfunded
mandates, because of their differential impact, place them on an unequal
footing with other states, its use by Justice O'Connor to support her reading
of the inherent state-sovereignty limitations of the Tenth Amendment…85
There is simply no evidence that, simply because she took it to support her
position on anti-coercion, Justice O’Connor sought to over-extend the Coyle
doctrine to a new area, or resurrect a doctrine of equality of states.
If the court wanted to wish a doctrine into being, it might not have
looked like Coyle. Usually the issue of “equal sovereignty” was barely on
point. used unequally against states that are perceived as different or
disloyal, in areas far removed from the enumerated federal powers of Article
I, and to subordinate states to an overarching federal system. The Court has
always entertained pluralism in this area both to the benefit and detriment
of states. 86
b. Cases Implicating Equal Sovereignty but Avoiding Coyle
Even where Coyle has not been directly cited in the Court's Tenth and
Eleventh Amendment jurisprudence, it bears structural similarities with
arguments made.87 In Northwest Austin, the Court, in their now-notorious
dicta, cited two equal footing cases United States v. Louisiana and Lessee of
Pollard v. Hagan as support for its assertions. They did not cite Coyle.
83 South Carolina v. Katzenbach, 383 U.S. 301 (1966).
84 See New York v. U.S., 505 U.S. 144, 162 (1992) (striking down a federal law that required states
to take title to low-level radioactive waste within their borders and citing Coyle for the proposition
that “The Constitution has never been understood to confer upon Congress the ability to require
the States to govern according to Congress's instructions”).
85 Michael C. Tolley and Bruce A. Wallin, Coercive Federalism and the Search for Constitutional
Limits, 25 PUBLIUS 73, 89 (1995).
86 Skiriotes v. Florida, 313 U.S. 69 (1941) (upholding Florida law that regulated taking of sealife
by Florida residents in the high seas as part of the inherent sovereignty of all states); Joplin
Mercantile Co. v. United States, 236 U.S. 531 (1915) (upholding a provision of Oklahoma's
Enabling Act that required the state to prohibit sales of liquor to Indians).
87 See e.g., Alden v. Maine, 527 U.S. 706 (1999); United States v. Lopez, 514 U.S. 549 (1995).
In Northwest Austin, the court (not yet ready to overturn Katzenbach)
completely avoided mentioning Coyle as well as the term “equal footing.” And
yet three other cases are cited. Even there, similarly situated states are
treated alike, and those states with a different history are treated
There is no discussion of lateral “equality” among states and no
suggestion that the constitution requires equal treatment of states 89 Texas v.
White simply explained how statehood was indissoluble both for Texas and
earlier states, and any language suggesting equality of states is used to this
purpose: “All the obligations of perpetual union, and all the guaranties of
republican government in the Union, attached at once to the State… The
union between Texas and the other States was as complete, as perpetual, and
as indissoluble as the union between the original States.”90 This description
is less like sovereignty alone and more like citizenship, wherein a certain
kind of equality is an aspect.91
In Northwest Austin, the Court, in their now-notorious dicta, cited two
equal footing cases United States v. Louisiana and Lessee of Pollard v.
Hagan,92 but not Coyle, as support for its assertions. They cited a truncated
passage from Katzenbach to overrule the actual holding in that passage of
Katzenbach. All that remained in Shelby to resurrect the “equal footing
doctrine” was to rely upon Northwest Austin, and the previously narrowed
88 United States v. Louisiana, 363 U.S. 1, 16 (1960) a foreign relations case regarding maritime
boundaries of particular states end and those of the United States as a whole.
89 Texas having claimed a maritime boundary at three marine leagues from her coast when she
was an independent republic prior to admission to the Union, and this boundary having been
confirmed pursuant to the Annexation Resolution of 1845, Texas was entitled, under the
Submerged Lands Act, to a grant of three marine leagues from her coast for domestic purposes.
United States v. States of La., Tex., Miss., Ala., & Fla., 363 U.S. 1, 80 S.Ct. 961 (1960)
supplemented sub nom. United States v. Louisiana, 382 U.S. 288, 86 S.Ct. 419 (1965).
90 United States v. Louisiana, 363 U. S. 1, 16 (1960) Lessee of Pollard v. Hagan, 3 How. 212, 223
(1845)); Texas v. White, 7 Wall. 700, 725–726 (1869).
91 The majority would almost certainly be hostile to the importation of public international law
into this area, though the concept of sovereign equality in that field is descended from a similar
set of natural law doctrines. Being folded into a sovereign, the moment of statehood (some precede
the nation-state and others created within its borders or designated from among its territories).
Thus the problem of statehood within a federal union more neatly divides the international law
two theories of recognition, called “declaratory” and “constitutive.” See HERSCH LAUTERPACHT,
RECOGNITION IN INTERNATIONAL LAW, 2, 38–66; JAMES CRAWFORD, THE CREATION OF STATES IN
INTERNATIONAL LAW, 16–25; GERRY SIMPSON, GREAT POWERS AND OUTLAW STATES UNEQUAL
SOVEREIGNS IN THE INTERNATIONAL LEGAL ORDER (Noting that sovereign equality of nation-states
has been qualified by the existence of legalized hegemony and anti-pluralism.).
92 United States v. Louisiana, 363 U. S. 1, 16 (1960) (citing Lessee of Pollard v. Hagan, 3 How.
212, 223 (1845)); see also Texas v. White, 7 Wall. 700, 725–726 (1869).
Coyle doctrine. seemed to get its notion of a tradition of state equal
sovereignty from the so-called “equal footing” doctrine—The suggestion is
that, in fact, equal footing case law suggests the opposite. This truncated
sentence appears: “The doctrine of the equality of States … does not bar…
remedies for local evils which have subsequently appeared.”93 The meaning is
precisely the opposite of what Katzenbach stated and intended. By the time
the Shelby majority reclaimed the inverted principle, they were able to claim
a departure from the “fundamental principle of equal sovereignty” would
require a showing that a statute’s disparate geographic coverage is
sufficiently related to the problem that it targets.
Northwest Austin left the constitutionality sections 4 and 5 untouched,
but smuggled in a foundational concept for the majority’s reasoning in
Shelby. In Shelby, section 5 was not struck down, but striking down the
section 4 coverage formula, the Court rendered section 5 inoperative. If
things were getting better, was this because of section 5 or despite it? The
question now is whether a world without section 5 will make evident the
progress that has been made or lead to immediate retrogression. The fate of
pre-clearance remains either litigation by an activist justice department
using a dynamic preclearance regime rooted in bail-out and bail-in
provisions, or else with Congress amending the VRA.
The majority was certainly audacious in relying upon this doctrine for
their decision, but in other ways they were risk averse. While they set a path
for giving legal expression to defeated doctrines of federalism, they also
avoided the conventional confrontation between states’ rights and the
Fourteenth Amendment. The stealth strategy meant sidelining precedents
that might have provided similar arguments for states’ rights.
In this way, insofar as the Fifteenth Amendment goes, there is no
constitutional principle remaining in this area. Whatever “equal sovereignty”
principle is being invoked, it is already a defeated doctrine.
What remains is a very different doctrine, which is more properly a
principle of equality “between states” rather than between states and the
Federal government. This is how the Court, first in Northwest Austin (2009),
and now with far greater consequences in Shelby, elevated an obscure and
93 Katzenbach, supra note 74, at 328–329: “[i]n acceptable legislative fashion, Congress chose to
limit its attention to the geographic areas where immediate action seemed necessary. The
doctrine of the equality of States, invoked by South Carolina, does not bar this approach, for that
doctrine 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.”
largely irrelevant doctrine (the “equal footing” doctrine) to a “fundamental
principle” of Constitutional law. In doing so, it mischaracterized the scope,
purpose, and meaning of that doctrine re-casting it as much broader principle
requiring “equality of sovereigns.” Remarkably, the applicability of the
doctrine took a short step from being completely rejected in Katzenbach,
resurrected in Northwest Austin merely by reference to Katzenbach, and fully
operative as a constitutional principle in Shelby sufficient to strike down
Article 4. The court’s audacity in this regard has not gone unnoticed.94
The majority in Shelby relied most directly on Northwest Austin
seemed to get its notion of a tradition of state equal sovereignty from the
socalled “equal footing” doctrine, But the equal footing doctrine doesn’t support
the idea that otherwise valid federal legislation treating states unequally is
suspect for that reason. In Shelby, in addition to the equal sovereignty cases
discussed in Northwest Austin, Coyle reappeared, no longer chastened by
It is a minor jurisprudence that may prove to enter the Constitutional
canon. 95 Like another minor jurisprudence that has emerged in recent
years—the Court’s jurisprudence of “state dignity” in the context of sovereign
immunity— the Shelby majority’s articulation of “state equality” has an
expressive function. 96 It is expressive of the same broader views on the
equality of states with the Federal government— the values that lost
constitutional protection with the Fifteenth amendment, “dignity” concerns,
the losing arguments in Tenth Amendment jurisprudence— all smuggled in
on the back of a relatively obscure doctrine.
I argue here that the court dug into a past battle that had been lost
and copy-pasted a discredited strand of Tenth Amendment jurisprudence in
this new context. The language of equal sovereignty is borrowed from a
limited doctrine, but its underlying principles are copy-pasted from a
discredited strand of Tenth Amendment jurisprudence, and the aspirations
94Joseph Fishkin, The Dignity of the South, 123 YALE L.J. ONLINE 175, 177 (2013),
http://yalelawjournal.org/2013/06/08/fishkin.html. (“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.”)
95 J.M. Balkin and Sanford Levinson, The Canons of Constitutional Law, 111 HARVARD L. REV. 963
(1998); Richard H. Pildes, Democracy, Anti-Democracy, and the Canon 17 CONSTITUTIONAL
COMMENTARY 295 (2000)
96 Evan H. Caminker, Judicial Solicitude for State Dignity, 574 ANNALS AM. ACAD. POL. & SOC.
SCI. 81 (2001); Peter J. Smith, States as Nations: Dignity in Cross-Doctrinal Perspective, 89 VA. L.
REV. 1 (2003).
and resentments that animate it are pulled from that earlier confrontation,
just as the folk wisdom of the court seems to recycle rhetoric from other lost
battles in American history: the defense of Jim Crow laws, resentment
against reconstruction, and even efforts to prop up slavery before the Civil
The difference here is that none of those earlier struggles is likely to be
fought again. But the decision is Shelby may just be a prelude to resurgence
in Tenth Amendment jurisprudence reinvigorating the concepts of dignity
and equality of sovereign states. According to Peter Onuf, “the conditions do
not seem to have engrained themselves too deeply in the minds of the people
of the states in question, or their historians for that matter… In the longer
historical perspective the conditions appear to have faded into memory-even
in the South, the ire of "Redeemers" appears to have been focused on the
substantive issues of black suffrage and civil rights (and the Fourteenth and
Fifteenth Amendments that enshrined these principles), rather than the fact
that these requirements were also imposed through the readmission
It is the states that can vindicate the rights of the individual is not
new and it was articulated from the Federalist Papers to National Federation
of Independent Business v. Sebelius (2012). 99 In the Tenth Amendment,
reserving powers to the states was seen as a truism, but one that seems to
have linking the states to “the people” seems to have had more of an afterlife
than any other handwritten afterthought. There are legalist and populists
97 JAMES RONALD KENNEDY AND WALTER DONALD KENNEDY, THE SOUTH WAS RIGHT! 174 (The
authors of this neo-confederate text lump the “the punitive Southern-only” Voting Rights Act with
other familiar charges of barbarity, hypocrisy, and infamy by the North, and by extension the
post-bellum Federal republic).
98 Peter S. Onuf, New State Equality: The Ambiguous History of a Constitutional Principle, 18
PUBLIUS 53 (1988); William A. Dunning, "Are the States Equal Under the Constitution?" 3
POLITICAL SCIENCE QUARTERLY 425-453 (1888).
Chief Justice Roberts articulated this view of federalism in National Federation of Independent
Business v. Sebelius, 567 U.S. 4 (2012) (Stating that “State sovereignty is not just an end in itself:
Rather, federalism secures to citizens the liberties that derive from the diffusion of sovereign
power.” quoting Coleman v. Thompson, 501 U. S. 722, 759 (1991) New York v. United States, 505
U. S. 144, 181 (1992) (internal quotation marks omitted) Because the police power is controlled by
50 different States instead of one national sovereign, the facets of governing that touch on
citizens’ daily lives are normally administered by smaller governments closer to the governed. The
Framers thus ensured that powers which “in the ordinary course of affairs, concern the lives,
liberties, and properties of the people” were held by governments more local and more accountable
than a distant federal bureaucracy. THE FEDERALIST NO. 45, at 293 (J. Madison). The independent
power of the States also serves as a check on the power of the Federal Government: “By denying
any one government complete jurisdiction over all the concerns of public life, federalism protects
the liberty of the individual from arbitrary power.” Bond v. United States, 131 S.Ct. 2355, 2364
strands of this movement, and they sometimes converge. There have been
legal arguments as well as purely expressive ones emanating from
movements which going back over a hundred years have gone by names such
as “Redeemers” “Lost Cause” “Neo-Confederate,” “Dixiecrats,” 100 “Southern
Strategy,” “Tenthers” or “Constitution in Exile.” Taken together, these are
not only exotic extremists, but also mainstream legal scholars and
ideologically-driven legislators (including those who have introduced “Tenth
Amendment Resolutions” in state legislatures). Carrying with them the torch
of liberty (the kind favored by libertarians as well as states’ rights advocates)
they arrive at arguments that range from moderate constitutional balancing
to threats of secession. What the Shelby County decision signals may be
slightly different from what it accomplishes as precedent or as guidance to
Congress, but it is no less significant.
EXPRESSIVE HARMS: CONDITIONALITY AND SELECTIVITY
As much as Shelby hinders the future implementation of the Voting
Rights Act, it also serves an expressive function. Along with interpreting the
law, it is also is concerned with “making statements” of a more general
nature.101 Some have argued these statements are empty gestures, based on
nothing more than nostalgia for states’ rights,102 like a sub-genre of Lost
Cause literature, equal parts propaganda and self-delusion, but it is worth
taking notice that through a combination of pragmatism and expressivity, the
Court managed to eviscerate the most effective legislation devised in the civil
According to Fishkin, the possible “dignitary harm” in the VRA,
preclearance, and the coverage formula “lies in treating the South—the former
Confederacy—differently from most of the rest of the states in a particular
way that carries with it the implication that the past is not dead.” Moreover,
he argues, “federal oversight” carries with it a “faint echo especially in its
100 RONALD STORY AND BRUCE LAURIE, ED. THE RISE OF CONSERVATISM IN AMERICA, 1945–2000: A
BRIEF HISTORY WITH DOCUMENTS 39 (2008). (Point Four of the 1948 platform of Strom Thurmond’s
“States’ Rights Democratic Party”—the Dixiecrats— weaves together the public and private in a
seamless and visible whole: “We stand for the segregation of the races and the racial integrity of
each race; the constitutional right to choose one’s associates; to accept private employment
without governmental interference, and to earn one’s living in any lawful way. We oppose the
elimination of segregation, the repeal of miscegenation statutes, the control of private
employment by Federal bureaucrats called for by the misnamed civil rights program. We favor
home-rule, local self-government and a minimum interference with individual rights.”).
101 Cass R. Sunstein, On the Expressive Function of Law, 44 U. PENN. L. REV. 2021 (1996).
102 Joseph Fishkin, The Dignity of the South, 123 YALE L.J. ONLINE 175, 177 (2013).
geographic outline of Reconstruction itself.” 103 The expressive harm here is
suggested by Justice Roberts in his statements and dicta. It is also addressed
by the revival and extension of the equal footing doctrine as one that insists
upon the “equality and dignity in power” among the several states.
Opponents of the coverage formula struck down in Shelby argued that it was
targeted and punitive, invoking a longer history of conquest. Defenders of the
formula were more divided, arguing that it was (1) targeted but not punitive,
(2) neither targeted nor punitive, or (3) targeted and punitive but perfectly
constitutional. I take the third of these views. In truth, particular states were
conquered at least three times: by arms, by constitutional amendment, and
by legislation, and the courts and legislatures remain viable options for
resistance. Even if other states were swept in from time to time (such as
those with linguistic minorities), it remained the states that belonged to the
former Confederacy who were unable to demonstrate sufficient commitment
to equality in order to bail out of the preclearance regime. Insofar as the
formula stigmatized certain states, this was not entirely unintended either.
In my view, it is not helpful to deny or repress the violence that brought us to
this point, and led both to opposite results by the two branches. It was out of
a conviction that selectivity carried some moral weight that Congress
extended the Act without revising the coverage formula, while the court’s
majority acted out the conviction that they were vindicating certain
counterclaims to justice, even against the proper reading of the law.
Over the years, section 5 in particular attracted a great deal of
admiration as well as controversy. The supporters of section 5 have a
normative commitment to the purpose that was rearticulated in 2006 when
the section was amended to clarify that the proposed laws must not have
either the intent or the effect of ‘‘diminishing the ability of any citizens of the
United States’’ because of race, color, or membership in a language minority
group defined in the Act “to elect their preferred candidate of choice.” 104
Congress’s power to act vigorously in this area has been reaffirmed over the
years. 105 Opponents of the section have had a more eclectic grab bag of
104 42 U.S.C. 1973c (b) & (d). See also FEDERAL REGISTER / Vol. 76, No. 27 / Wednesday, February
9, 2011. Notices U.S. Department of Justice Guidance Concerning Redistricting Under Section 5 of
the Voting Rights Act http://www.justice.gov/crt/about/vot/sec_5/sec5guidance2011.pdf.
105 Georgia v. United States, 411 U.S. 526, 535 (1973) (reaffirming that “the Act is a permissible
exercise of congressional power under § 2 of the Fifteenth Amendment”); City of Rome v. United
States, 446 U.S. 156, 183 (1980) (explaining that “we have reaffirmed our holdings in South
Carolina v. Katzenbach that the Act is ‘an appropriate means for carrying out Congress’
constitutional responsibilities’ and is ‘consonant with all . . . provisions of the Constitution”)
(quoting South Carolina v. Katzenbach, 383 U.S. 301, 308 (1966) ); Lopez v. Monterrey County,
525 U.S. 266, 283 (1999) (reaffirming that “Congress has the constitutional authority to designate
covered jurisdictions and to guard against changes that give rise to a discriminatory effect in
arguments, ranging from disapproval of the ways section 5 has enabled the
creation majority-minority districts, to the idea that just because states once
acted in a particular way, it does not mean they will in the future. Northwest
Austin set out “two principal inquiries”: (1) whether the “current burdens”
imposed by section 5 “are “justified by current needs” and (2) whether section
5’s “‘disparate geographic coverage is sufficiently related to the problem it
targets.’” 106 The first question relates to the overcoming weight of history as
well as coercive burdens (conditionality) and the second question deals with
overcoming disparate treatment (selectivity). The court moved both questions
to section 4’s coverage formula rather than the practice of preclearance.
According to Peter Onuf, descendants of White southerners are more likely to
decry the end of slavery and segregation, “rather than the fact that these
requirements were also imposed through the readmission conditions.”107 It
actually seems like the opposite is true: since many of these issues have long
been off the table, using “post-racial” rhetoric, the fact of continuing
“conquest” (selectivity and conditionality) have become the main sites for
struggle. There are legalist and populists strands of this rhetoric and they
sometimes converge. Perhaps “equal sovereignty” were serve as new
galvanizing norm, drawing the energies of those who would champion state
sovereignty, but find few openings within the mainstream of cons titutional
1. Critique of Conditionality: The VRA Wrongfully Coerced
The first critique that can be traced from opposition to the VRA context
back through its precursors is that this form of federal regulation wrongfully
coerces states with burdensome conditions. Justice Black objected to the
provisions of the VRA “which force[d] any one of the states to entreat federal
authorities in far-away places for approval of local laws before they can
become effective” He went on to say this is “to create the impression that the
State or States treated in this way are little more than conquered
provinces.” 109 More recently the Cato Institute’s amicus brief in Shelby
claimed “[t]he VRA effectively put southern states under federal electoral
receivership.” Aside from the selectivity, the idea of undue burdens being
106 Nw. Austin, 557 U.S. at 203.
107 Peter S. Onuf, New State Equality: The Ambiguous History of a Constitutional Principle, 18
PUBLIUS 53 (1988); William A. Dunning, "Are the States Equal Under the Constitution?" 3
POLITICAL SCIENCE QUARTERLY 425-453 (1888).
108 MARK R. KILLENBECK (ED.), “THE TENTH AMENDMENT AND STATE SOVEREIGNTY: CONSTITUTIONAL
HISTORY AND CONTEMPORARY ISSUES” (2001).
109 South Carolina v. Katzenbach, 383 U.S. 301, 360 (1966) (Black, J., dissenting).
placed upon any state, tracks cultural memories and representations of
conquest. Either as a product of a longer cultural memory, or simply a glib
analogy, the preclearance and even bailout provisions would me reminiscent
of loyalty requirements, and conditionality for full sovereignty.
The point, however, is that the VRA should be punitive, or at least
sufficiently coercive to deter the conduct it is designed to deter.
2. Critique of Selectivity: The VRA Invidiously Targeted
The second objection is the historical and geographic specificity of the
states being treated as “conquered provinces.” Earlier arguments in the
contending narratives also pointed to ‘selectivity’ by charging the Union, and
later the Federal government, not with domination or elitism, but with
hypocrisy. 110 In this view, each successive effort has been marred by
selectivity. The same measures opponents of the VRA (and before it, the
Reconstruction amendments) would call “hypocritical” or “selective,” however,
its defenders would call proportional and narrowly-tailored. Among those
who views selectivity as a virtue is Akhil Amar, who connects the VRA to the
Congressional Republicans openly admitted that many Northern states
also had imperfect track records, but these congressional leaders
insisted that Article IV authorized the federal government to draw
sensible lines targeting the worst state offenders. In 1866, most
Northern states disfranchised blacks, but because free blacks
constituted a significantly higher percentage of the population of the
former Confederacy, it was not unfair — on the contrary, it was
necessary and proper — for Congress to target these worst-offending
states and to administer to these states specially strong medicine that
limited their previously unfettered and previously abused freedom over
On the other hand, viewing the same history“[o]pponents cried foul in the
name of federalism, states’ rights, and equal treatment for all states.” 112
Unlike Amar, who candidly approves of such “specially strong
medicine,” other defenders of the VRA would deny that it has ever been
110 JUDITH N. SHKLAR, ORDINARY VICES (1985).
111 Akhil Amar, The Lawfulness of Section 5 — and thus of Section 5, 126 HARVARD L. REV. FORUM
109, 113 (2013).
either targeted or punitive. Pointing to a facially neutral coverage formula (it
did not mention states, though it did refer to conduct and dates), supporters
of Article 5 regime could say supported its continuation not to humiliate or
stigmatize the twice-defeated South, but to deter future discriminatory
practices. Indeed, the covered jurisdictions were not identical to the
Confederacy, or the Jim Crow South, or even limited to the geographical
southern states. It was about other struggles as well, such as the struggle for
inclusion by linguistic minorities into full and meaningful participation.
Those who wish to emphasize the facial neutrality of the coverage formula
could emphasize the inclusion of the counties that overlap with the boroughs
of New York City, to show that the formula was neither about Red and Blue
states, nor the old Blue and Grey. Parts of New York California, and Texas
were covered because they have significant populations of linguistic
minorities, and Alaska and Arizona have continued to be covered for the
For others on both sides of the question, history was crucial. Most
defenders of the formula, including the dissent in Shelby County, characterize
the coverage formula as targeted but not punitive.113 “There is no question,
moreover, that the covered jurisdictions have a unique history of problems
with racial discrimination in voting.”114 The targeting is as often described in
facially neutral terms as it is historically contextualized. “Consideration of
this long history, still in living memory, was altogether appropriate.”
Preclearance was “a procedure which, while not always burdensome,
nevertheless was viewed by many as an “important political symbol” by local
officials: “a vivid stigma recalling the sins of past generations.”115 Even if
Section 4 was not exclusively about re-fighting the Civil War or even the civil
rights movement, it imported gained the force of principle from association
with these struggles. More than the dissent, though, it is the majority
(starting in Northwest Austin and continuing through the oral arguments in
Shelby County) that kept whistling Dixie despite its stated position that no
113 The website of the civil rights coalition the Leadership conference, asks and answers the
question “Because of its limited application, is Section 5 used to "punish" certain states?” by
saying “Section 5 is not punitive; it prohibits discriminatory changes affecting the right to vote.
The Voting Rights Act has no provisions that name particular states or areas. Section 5 is aimed
at a type of problem, not a state or region.” On the other hand, the “It is designed to prevent
backsliding” Congress therefore included the Section 5 preclearance provision to prevent the
implementation of new discriminatory laws. The objections made since 1965 showed the covered
jurisdictions have attempted to use gerrymandering and other forms of discrimination to abridge
the right to vote. Section 5 has focused on these efforts. “Voting Rights Act Frequently Asked
114 Shelby Cnty. v. Holder, 133 S.Ct. at 2642.
115 Thomas M. Boyd and Stephen J. Markman, The 1982 Amendments To The Voting Rights Act: A
Legislative History, 40 WASH. & LEE L. REV. 1347, 1427 (1983).
state or region should be stigmatized. Supporters of the VRA should have
been more forcefully committed to the idea that both selectivity and
conditionality were appropriate. The point is that the VRA should be
punitive, or at least sufficiently coercive to deter the conduct it is designed to
deter, and targeted enough to accomplish what the Fifteenth Amendment
demanded of states.
3. The Expressive and Instrumental Functions of State
Dignity and State Equality
What is the actual advantage of referring to “equal sovereignty” and
not just “state sovereignty” as it more familiar in federalism debates?
Certainly a reinvigorated notion of states’ rights fits well with other
jurisprudential strands as well a stream of right wing populism and
literature that is helping to shape contemporary politics. In its form
“sovereignty” is analogous to “liberty” not to “equality” and therefore the role
of concepts like “equal sovereignty of states” is not self-evident to those
engaged in federalism debates. Instead what is generally at stake in these
debates is the freedom of the states vs. the federal government to legislate,
adjudicate, regulate or act as they please is generally what is at stake. The
Supremacy Clause settles some of these issues, and others remain open.116 To
introduce a term like “equality” into the characterization of states as
sovereigns requires an additional argument, additional evidence, and an
In the modern context, insofar as there are still territorial entities
vying for statehood, the concept of equality of statehood may not be
meaningless. Residents of Washington D.C. or Puerto Rico contend with
second-class status in terms of representation, some within these areas
aspire to statehood, understanding that such a status mediate protections of
status, and full citizenship. Here, statehood within a republican form of
government would itself be the prize, and not the fear of being denominated a
second-class state. Thus, what the actual “equal footing” doctrine would
accomplish in this context is far from clear. 117 Also, if “statehood” is the
116 Nina Markey, The Political Boundary Requirement of Article IV, Section 2, Paragraph 3 of the
New Jersey Constitution Must Be Breached in Order to Comply with the Voting Rights Act and the
Supremacy Clause; 35 RUTGERS L.J. 1375 (2003-2004);
117 Javier J. Rua Jovet, The Fourth Option: Modern Self-Determination of Peoples and the
Possibilities of U.S. Federalism, 49 REV. DER. P.R. 163 (2009-2010); the footing argument occupied
one side of a continuum in a discourse on loyalty for newly admitted states: Eric Biber, Price of
Admission: Causes, Effects, and Patterns of Conditions Imposed on States Entering the Union,
The; 46 Am. J. Legal Hist. 119 (2004). It also has implications for choice of law principles, and
full-faith and credit laws. Douglas Laycock, Equal Citizens of Equal and Territorial States: The
protected classification, how does the doctrine apply to the diversity of
covered jurisdictions, which are municipal entities of all types?118 Covered
jurisdictions need not even be states.
The move to equality accomplishes more than the expressive function.
If the function of equal sovereignty is limited to an expressive function, it
might play a role in galvanizing political movements. The expressive function
supports an instrumental one. For example, consider the mediating concept
of state dignity evident in oral arguments (where Justice Kennedy referred to
the “equal dignity” of sovereigns). 119 “Equal dignity” of states brings
“sovereign equality” discourse a little closer to the concerns of federalism
debates and the states’ rights concerns that emanate from the Tenth
Amendment and Article IV of the Constitution. But the value of “equality” is
instrumental and not only expressive. As I argue below, the “misrecognition”
of this doctrine is crafted in order to accommodate contemporary demands for
states’ rights, and implicit in the analysis is a new standard of review.
If it is taken seriously as a legal doctrine, then it might inch away from
its narrow role as an “equal footing” standard, and aspire towards a kind of
“equal protection” argument available to states. This possibility was explicitly
rejected in Katzenbach, which also dealt with ingenious attempts by South
Carolina to extend due process and bill of attainder protections to states.
The instrumental accomplishment of Shelby County is that under any
successor to the VRA, or any similar legislation, differential treatment of
covered and non-covered jurisdictions must be subject to heightened scrutiny.
Though the Court never explicitly defines their standard of review, it is not
strict scrutiny, but certainly heightened, taking away some deference from an
ordinary rational basis standard, and focusing on differential treatment of
states. In what until now has been an entirely different site for applying such
Constitutional Foundations of Choice of Law, 92 COLUM. L.REV. 249 (1992). None of these,
however, exempt states from Federal civil rights legislation.
118For a comparison of states and other municipal units, see Allan, Erbsen, Constitutional Spaces,
95 MINN. L. REV. 1 (2011).
119 But conceptions of dignity are also plural, and multiply among all the subjects and sovereigns
who claim it. See Judith Resnik & Julie Chi-hye Suk, Adding Insult to Injury: Questioning the
Role of Dignity in Conceptions of Sovereignty, 55 STAN. L. REV. 1921, 1933-58 (2003) (discussing
this sovereign conception of state dignity and contrasting it with other conceptions of dignity
operative in our law); see also Leslie Meltzer Henry, The Jurisprudence of Dignity, 160 U. PA. L.
REV. 169, 192-99 (2011).
scrutiny, “disparate treatment” can be challenged under equal protection
analysis, which requires heightened scrutiny for laws discriminating against
discrete and insular minorities. The notion that states qualify for equal
protection was rejected out of hand by the court in Katzenbach, along with
the applicability the narrower doctrine that new states enter the Union on an
equal footing with their predecessors as articulated under Coyle v. Oklahoma.
1. Boerne Again?: Does Shelby County Inaugurate a New
Standard of Review?
While silently over-turning Katzenbach’s clear statement on the
inapplicability of the equal footing doctrine, the court side-stepped several
important questions, including the applicable standard of review. Many
commentators found this anti-climactic, and others seemed either relieved or
disappointed that the heightened test from Boerne was not explicitly applied,
and still believe the Court will have to address whether Section 2 of the
Fifteenth Amendment is subject to deferential “rational basis” standard set
forth in Katzenbach or the more demanding one from Boerne.
In the wake of Shelby County, one of the most important lingering
questions is whether the Court has imported the heightened standard of
scrutiny for Section 5 of the Fourteenth Amendment (congruence and
proportionality from Boerne v. Flores) to Section 2 of the Fifteenth
Amendment. It might have seemed so. The Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and
Fifteenth Amendments each conclude with nearly-identically-worded sections
giving Congress powers to enforce the Amendment “by appropriate
legislation”120 The Court has found that each section should be interpreted
similarly, unpacking “appropriate” to mean “congruent and proportional.” In
a line of cases starting with City of Boerne v. Flores, the Supreme Court the
mid-1990s had begun to limit the power of Congress to enforce the
guarantees of the Civil War Amendments, crafting a “congruence and
proportionality” test to assess the constitutionality of congressional efforts to
enforce the Fourteenth Amendment.121 In Boerne, using this test, the Court
struck a balance, reaffirming the power of Congress to enact prophylactic
rules to protect established constitutional guarantees while striking down
efforts to provide additional guarantees not properly rooted in the
Constitution. What has been seen in subsequent cases Congress had to be
120 Thirteenth Amendment, §2: Fourteenth Amendment, §5: Fifteenth Amendment, §2.
121 See City of Boerne v. Flores, 521 U.S. 507 (1997); Florida Prepaid Postsecondary Educ.
Expense Bd. v. College Savings Bank, 527 U.S. 637 (1999); Kimel v. Florida Bd. of Regents, 528
U.S. 62 (2000); Board of Trustees of Univ. of Ala. v. Garrett, 531 U.S. 356 (2001); Coleman v.
Maryland Court of Appeals, 132 S. Ct. 1327 (2012).
enforcing actual constitutional guarantees – there must be a “congruence and
proportionality” between the injury to be prevented or remedied and the
means adopted to that end – but once it was, the Court recognized that
Congress had wide latitude to act.122 That balance allowed the Court to limit
the reach of federal age and disability discrimination laws and, most recently,
the Family and Medical Leave Act. 123 On the other side, certain
commentators while recognizing City of Boerne v. Flores and its progeny have
effectively limited Congress’s Fourteenth Amendment powers via doctrines of
“congruence” and “proportionality,” 124 insist this is not necessary in the
Fifteenth Amendment context, which is already constrained to the area of
voting rights. 125 Insofar as the Fifteenth Amendment “amended” and
therefore “trumps” the Tenth Amendment.”126 And, while it is generally true
that states retain broad powers to regulate elections, the Fifteenth
Amendment modified those powers with respect to denying or abridging
voting rights based upon race or color. Even strictly construed, Fifteenth
Amendment describes Congress's power to ensure the right to vote regardless
of race or color as plenary. As such, the Tenth Amendment is inoperative to
prevent or limit Congress's authority to legislate these matters.127 The Court
in Boerne was concerned that Congress might invent constitutional rights in
the guise of enacting enforcement legislation. That concern does not have any
force when it comes to the Fifteenth Amendment’s focused and express
prohibition on racial discrimination in voting.128 Most commentators believe
the application of Boerne would have established a less deferential standard
based on congruence and proportionality. (“There must be a congruence and
proportionality between the injury to be prevented or remedied and the
means adopted to that end. Lacking such a connection, legislation may
122 See e.g., Nevada Dep’t of Human Resources v. Hibbs, 538 U.S. 721, 727-28 (2003) (“Congress
may enact so-called prophylactic legislation that proscribes facially constitutional conduct, in
order to prevent and deter unconstitutional conduct.”); Tennessee v. Lane, 541 U.S. 509, 520
(2004) (explaining that “Congress must have a wide berth in devising appropriate remedial and
preventative measures for unconstitutional actions”).
123 Kimel, 528 U.S. 62; Garrett, 531 U.S. 356; Coleman, 132 S.Ct. 1327.
124 See City of Boerne v. Flores, 521 U.S. 507 (1997).
125 Akhil Amar, The Lawfulness of Section 5 — and thus of Section 5, 126 HARVARD L. REV. FORUM
109, 120 (2013).
126 Paul Abrams, “The Fifteenth Amendment Trumps the Tenth Amendment on Voting Rights,”
HUFFINGTON POST. July 1, 2013.
127 In the context of the Fifteenth Amendment, we need not settle the ongoing Tenth Amendment
controversies over “enumerated powers” those “expressly granted” and that Congress has great
latitude employing the “necessary and proper” clause.
128 Fifteenth Amendment only provides limited authority for Congress to ban discrimination in
voting, and the Court may have wanted to examine whether Congress’s powers to mandate voter
equality are broader under the Fourteenth Amendment, which guarantees legal equality.
become substantive in operation and effect”).129
Yet the majority did not even cite Boerne,130 possibly as not to attract
vigorous dissent, or so the serious problems with equal sovereignty would
pass under the radar. Critics of the opinion can take some relief that they did
not add another case to the Boerne line of cases, even as they are frustrated
that Katzenbach is being abandoned piecemeal. But there is another
possibility. In my view, it might be a false choice between Boerne and
Katzenbach and the moment for choosing has already passed. Indeed as the
Court of Appeals in Shelby County noted, Boerne itself “relied quite heavily
on Katzenbach for the proposition that section 5, as originally enacted and
thrice extended, was a model of congruent and proportional legislation.”131
Instead, by declining to use either test, the Court is signaling that embedded
somewhere in Northwest Austin or Shelby County itself, there is a new test
being fabricated for the purposes of the Fifteenth Amendment and Voting
Rights jurisprudence. Northwest Austin was known until Shelby as a case
that avoided all constitutional issues, and yet the Shelby County court relies
on it heavily, not only for a substantive doctrine but also a standard of
review. 132 Since Constitutional avoidance was so central to the holding,
Shelby will quickly displace it as setting both the terms of the equal
sovereignty doctrine (overturning Katzenbach and resurrecting Coyle) and
the standard of review for future cases (overturning Katzenbach and cloning
Boerne). The Court has held that principles of federalism place limitations on
the Fourteenth Amendment in Boerne. Shelby County could be seen as the
Fifteenth Amendment analog to Boerne, but it inaugurates a test that stands
alone. This might be more damaging to Congress’s power under the
Fifteenth Amendment than either Boerne or Katzenbach, which represent a
continuum of rational and proportional, but do not pretend to model their
tests on a kind of equal protection analysis.
It might be predicted that Shelby will be to the Fifteenth Amendment
what Boerne was to the Fourteenth Amendment, and certainly each case
articulates a principle of federalism placing limitations on regulatory statutes
justified under the respective amendments. But this discourse is no longer
129 Boerne, 117 S.Ct. at 2164.
130 Richard Hasen, The Curious Disappearance of Boerne and the Future Jurisprudence of Voting
Rights and Race, SCOTUSBLOG, Jun. 25, 2013,
131 Shelby Cnty v. Holder, 679 F.3d 848, 859 (D.C. Cir. 2012) rev’d , 133 S.Ct. 2612 (2013) and
vacated and remanded 541 F. App x 1 (D.C. Cir. 2013).
132 As Rick Hasen noted, though the Court flagged the issue in Northwest Austin, CJ Roberts
ignored Boerne, except for a single sentence: “Both the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments
were at issue in Northwest Austin . . . and accordingly Northwest Austin guides our review under
both Amendments in this case.”
about federalism, the structure of the relationship between the states and the
federal government, and the details of shared sovereignty. It is about treating
states as protected “persons” to some degree. What is new, even to equal
footing doctrine, is that the Court is suddenly applying tiers of scrutiny to
regulatory statutes that facially discriminate between states in almost
precisely the same way they would conduct an equal protection analysis.133
No previous articulation of the equal footing doctrine actually supports the
idea that “otherwise valid federal legislation treating states unequally is
suspect.”134 For that, the Court would have to own up to what it is doing, it is
not cloning the Coyle doctrine, or doing conducting a “equal footing” analysis,
it is conducting something more like an equal protection analysis: it is
treating states as protected “persons” to some degree, and without a clear
source for this test, applying tiers of scrutiny to regulatory statutes that
facially discriminate between states in almost precisely the same way they
would. Though the court does not go as far as to apply “equal protection” to
states (a still implausible mutation of doctrine) they carve out the possibility
of engaging in the same kind of inquiry. Though the use of the term “equal
protection” would have alerted us to the far-reaching ambition of the
judgment, the court was careful to appear as though they were drawing upon
a well-settled principle. But the pragmatic requirements of moderation were
exceeded only insofar as the majority also wished to engage in a kind of
expressivity: thus the rather pedestrian sounding “equal footing” doctrine
was referred to as “equal sovereignty among states.”
2. Cloning Coyle: Is this Equal Sovereignty a Hybrid of
Guarding against the possibility of a novel heightened standard of
scrutiny, Ginsburg said: “Faced with subsequent reauthorizations of the
VRA, the Court has reaffirmed [the Katzenbach] standard.”135 “Today’s Court
does not purport to alter settled precedent establishing that the dispositive
question is whether Congress has employed “rational means.”136 This was
133 Gerard Magliocca, “An Equal Protection Clause for the States,” CONCURRING OPINIONS (blog),
http://www.concurringopinions.com/archives/2013/08/an-equal-protection-clause-for-the-states2.html. (Last checked December 11, 2014). (asking whether “the Court is now applying tiers of
scrutiny to regulatory statutes that facially discriminate between states.”)
134 Zachary Price, Shelby County v. Holder: The Voting Rights Act Doesn’t Need to Treat States
Equally, SCOTUSBLOG (Feb. 16, 2013, 2:23 AM),
135 Shelby Cnty. v. Holder, 133 S.Ct. 2612 (Ginsburg, J., dissenting) (citing South Carolina v.
Katzenbach, 383 U.S. at 324).
136 Shelby Cnty. v. Holder, 133 S.Ct. 2612 (Ginsburg, J., dissenting) (citing e.g., City of Rome, 446
U. S. at 178).
blocking Boerne but also expressing skepticism about any stealth standard
that might have been applied. The Court reaches this less deferential
standard without even using Boerne. We can now assume that were there an
amendment of the VRA, with a new coverage formula, this test would be
repeated and heightened, less deferential rational basis test, where disparate
treatment is detected, the Court will demand a tighter fit between the
coverage formula, which states are included and which are excluded, and the
locations of voting rights violations.137 If the holding is not limited to facial
discrimination, but also how regulatory statutes are applied, the Court might
also be called upon to apply such a test to the remaining sections of the VRA,
including section 5 if it is “applied” in a “discriminatory” manner. Justice
Ginsburg points out that the majority’s “unprecedented extension of the
equal sovereignty principle outside its proper domain—the admission of new
States—is capable of much mischief.” Will the holding of Shelby County be
expanded to include all regulatory statutes that facially discriminate between
states, as Justice Ginsburg worried about in her dissent? Perhaps a law
exempting some states from its regulatory requirements without any
explanation would at least raise questions under rational basis review. But
the VRA set out its formula explicitly. And yet the Court held that the record
amassed by Congress when the Voting Rights Act was renewed in 2006 was
insufficient to justify that facial discrimination between the states. So it is
not merely about rational basis at all. Why was that evidence inadequate? Is
there a reason to distinguish Congress’s power pursuant to the Commerce
Clause from its powers under the Reconstruction Amendments? Or is there
something special about state authority over voting that calls for more
demanding judicial scrutiny?
What are the consequences of the Court’s “expansion of equal
sovereignty’s sway?”138 It depends, on which “past” (and which precedent) “is
prologue.”139 “To speak of a decision as “unprincipled” is typically to say that
a court gave as a reason for a thus suggesting that the reason given by the
court was not really a reason it took very seriously.”140 That may very well be
137 Joey Fishkin, The Way Forward After Shelby County, BALKINIZATION, 8:07 PM E.S.T. (June 25,
2013) available at http://balkin.blogspot.in/2013/06/the-way-forward-after-shelby-county.html.
(Fishkin calls the test the court implicitly applied “rational basis with a bite,” squaring the
characterization with the result, deducing that it was the “language in the opinion suggesting
that the coverage formula is simply irrational” that was fatal when applied to “a statute enacted
by Congress and supported by a 15,000 page record, described at length in the dissent, would
ordinarily pass rational basis review.”) (emphasis added).
138 Shelby Cnty v. Holder, 133 S.Ct. 2612 (Ginsburg, J., dissenting).
139 Justice Ginsburg quotes W. SHAKESPEARE, THE TEMPEST, act 2, sc. 1 to say “the past is
prologue” to suggest that the past behavior of states will predict their future behavior. I am
suggesting here that the court might not even be this reliable or predictable.
140 FREDRICK SCHAUER, THINKING LIKE A LAWYER 178. See M. P. Golding, Principled
Decisionthe case here. The best evidence for this will be whether the court chooses to
follow this reasoning in future cases. “Federal statutes that treat States
disparately are hardly novelties.”141 Congress routinely passes legislation –
earmarks, pilot projects, the management of federal property, involving local
emergencies or contingencies- that presumes that only some rational basis is
necessary for unequal treatment of states. It will be surprising if opponents of
some of these legislative efforts will not now find their courts. But it will also
be surprising if the court is now committing itself to apply a heightened
scrutiny test in all such cases.
It remains to be seen whether the doctrine will remain an isolated for a
particular result, or whether it is a part of a broader expressive turn in the
area of states’ rights.
Here, and perhaps in the future, “equal sovereignty” functioned as a
heightened scrutiny test, albeit one that was not applied explicitly and this
may be an incremental step towards developing this test in other areas. Of all
the purposes and principles that could be served, the emphasis “equality of
states” was an eccentric one. It remains to be seen whether the liberties the
majority has taken to overcome history, precedent, and logic are merely
prologue to a wider effort to resurrect moribund states’ rights doctrines. But
on the back of the narrower concept “equal footing doctrine” as well as a set of
doctrines, the court is crafting alongside the “proportionality and congruence”
limits on the Fourteenth Amendment, a heightened scrutiny for laws
enforcing the Fifteenth Amendment, and may be intended as a new
galvanizing norm, drawing the energies of those who would champion state
sovereignty as a matter of dignity or strategy.
making and the Supreme Court, 63 COLUM. L. REV. 35 (1963); Kent Greenawalt, The Enduring
Significance of Neutral Principles, 78 COLUM. L. REV. 982 (1978).
141 Shelby Cnty. v. Holder, (Ginsburg, J., dissenting) (“See e.g., 28 U. S. C. §3704 (no State may
operate or permit a sports-related gambling scheme, unless that State conducted such a scheme
“at any time during the period beginning January 1, 1976, and ending August 31, 1990”); 26
U.S.C. §142(l) (EPA required to locate green building project in a State meeting specified
population criteria); (at least 50 percent of rural drug enforcement assistance funding must be
allocated to States with “a population density of fifty-two or fewer persons per square mile or a
State in which the largest county has fewer than one hundred and fifty thousand people, based on
the decennial census of 1990 through fiscal year 1997”); §§13925, 13971 (similar population
criteria for funding to combat rural domestic violence); §10136 (specifying rules applicable to
Nevada’s Yucca Mountain nuclear waste site, and providing that “[n]o State, other than the State
of Nevada, may receive financial assistance under this subsection after December 22, 1987”).
Are we bound to dignify the court’s use of “dignity,” accept their
equivalence between notions of “equality”? Another concern is whether we
believe this application of the terms cheapens the realms to which such
concepts are properly attached. A philosophical argument that extends
rights, dignity, equality and sovereignty to states on one side, and parallel
entitlements to individuals on the other142 may not be resolvable by reference
to moral philosophy, but as a constitutional matter it is much simpler.143
Opponents of the Shelby decision may take some comfort that the court
may have been cynical in reaching its result. If so, the damage can be limited.
One concern may be, as a legal matter, how serious is the court itself, is the
reason given a reason it took very seriously.” That may very well be the case
here. The best evidence for this will be whether the court chooses to follow
this reasoning in future cases. In defending the idea that states who have
acted badly in the past might be expected to do so in the future. It remains to
be seen whether the liberties the majority has taken to overcome history,
precedent, and logic are merely prologue to a wider effort to resurrect
moribund states’ rights doctrines.
Though the VRA survived a constitutional challenge, 144 each time it
was amended, 145 there remained an undercurrent of discontent and an
intuition, articulated through any number of constitutional provisions and
quasi-constitutional arguments, that the law posed a significant intrusion on
state sovereignty. Before Shelby v. Holder, there remained nine states, and
local governments in seven other states 146 that were required to get
permission from the Justice Department or a Federal Court before they could
142 Garrett Epps, Voting Rights Act Case Pits the Rights of Humans Against the 'Sovereignty' of
States, THE ATLANTIC MONTHLY (Feb. 24 2013).
143 There is a convincing literature on the revolutionary effect of the Reconstruction Amendments
on American law and society. How the court did not take on the Reconstruction amendments head
on without being (or remaining) on the losing side of history? The answer may be as simple (and
ironic for popular sovereignty movements) as a 5-4 majority.
144 South Carolina v. Katzenbach, 383 U.S. 301 (1966); Georgia v. United States, 411 U.S. 526
(1973); City of Rome v. United States, 446 U.S. 156 (1980); Lopez v. Monterrey County, 525 U.S.
145 See Fannie Lou Hamer, Rosa Parks, and Coretta Scott King Voting Rights Act Reauthorization
and Amendments Act of 2006, Pub. L. No. 109-246, 120 Stat. 577; Voting Rights Act Amendments
of 1982, Pub. L. No. 97-205, 96 Stat. 131; Act of Aug. 6, 1975, Pub. L. No. 94-73, 89 Stat. 400;
Voting Rights Act Amendments of 1970, Pub. L. No. 91-285, 84 Stat. 314.
146 The jurisdictions most recently covered by section 5 are the states of Alabama, Alaska,
Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas, and Virginia, counties in
California, Florida, New York, North Carolina, and South Dakota, and townships in Michigan and
New Hampshire. See 28 C.F.R. pt. 51 app. at 100-01 (2009). See Civil Rights Division, U.S.
Department of Justice, Section 5 Covered Jurisdictions,
change any law dealing with voting. Might the Court's protection of state
dignity be justified as an “effort to reinvigorate a long-dormant cultural
attitude… an affinity and respect for state government-- that would promote
the structural values of federalism in today's world?”147 More optimistically,
the dialectic of conquest may be coming to an end, and the narrative of
political unification may finally be one that the formerly stigmatized states
will now adopt.148 Unfortunately after giving so much lip service to stigma
and dignitary rights, and entering the mainstream, the formerly covered
jurisdictions have been poised to repeat history and pass laws regressing
from the goals of wider enfranchisement.
The court has not outrun the narratives that have shaped the
discourse up to this time. They might have believed that by relieving states of
historical burdens, they would transcend the conflicts that shaped that
history. At the time the VRA was passed, it made sense to focus on “bad
actors” (through a section 4 “coverage formula”) and to put a burden on these
past offenders to demonstrate their proposed laws would not discriminate
(through section 5’s pre-clearance procedures).149 For now it is unclear how
the purposes of the Act will be enforced.150 Redemption and inclusion are not
likely at hand. Even in a world where Articles 4 and 5 are no longer
available, the basic struggle for political participation remains, and with
other forms of enforcement and federal oversight (Justice Department or
Article 2), and so the two narratives will remain antagonistic for the time
147 See also Evan H. Caminker, Judicial Solicitude for State Dignity, 574 ANNALS AM. ACAD. POL.
& SOC. SCI. 81 (2001).
148 AMITAI ETZIONI, POLITICAL UNIFICATION (1965).
149 This originally applied to states that had used a discriminatory voting law or method that was
in effect in November 1964. More recently, the formula was changed to key it to the situation as of
150 Guy-Uriel E. Charles & Luis Fuentes-Rohwer, Mapping a Post-Shelby County Contingency
Strategy, 123 YALE L.J. ONLINE 131 (2013),
http://yalelawjournal.org/2013/06/07/charlesfuentesrohwer.html; Heather Gerken,” A Third Way
for the Voting Rights Act: Section 5 and the Opt-In Approach” (August 22, 2005). Harvard Public
Law Working Paper No. 118. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=788067 or