#7: Shelby County

Blog Post #7

The Court’s decision in South Carolina v. Katzenbach (1966) lays out the case for why Congress has broad amendment enforcing powers under the 15th Amendment. In this case, the Court relies on arguments dating back to the Marshall Court. Specifically, the Court held that the word “necessary” in the Supremacy Clause should be read rather broadly, so as to encompass legislation rationally in service of reaching a permissible legislative goal.

map of preclearance states
Jurisdictions covered by Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act under the preclearance formula overturned by the Court in Shelby Co (2013)


The Court in Katzenbach also noted that “exceptional conditions can justify legislative measures not otherwise appropriate.” This qualification was probably intended to emphasize the pervasiveness of voting rights restrictions based on race. This qualification was invoked by the Roberts Court in Shelby Co. v. Holder (2013). Read the excerpt of the majority opinion in the content area of WebCampus (in the “Online Readings” folder).

Although the Supreme Court struck down the reauthorization of the original formula, it did leave room for Congress to develop a new, more modern formula. Congress tried to do this, getting support from a surprising figure. But the efforts failed, and the 2016 federal elections were the first in decades to be conducted without these protections. 

Paper Topic #7: In your view, how does the majority opinion treat the amendment enforcing power of Congress? How does the Court go about explaining its holding that the preclearance formula, which was held to be constitution in the 1960s, is no longer constitutionally permissible? What is the status of the amendment enforcing power of Congress in the wake of Shelby Co.?

Recommended Reading: Katz, Ellen D. 2014. “Dismissing Deterrence.” Harvard Law Review, 127(6): 248-52.


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