Shelby County: KTB American Government and Civics Series
Shelby County v. Holder (2013) is one of the landmark Supreme Court cases featured in the KTB Prep American Government and Civics series designed to acquaint users with the origins, concepts, organizations, and policies of the United States government and political system. The goal is greater familiarization with the rights and obligations of citizenship at the local, state, national, and global levels and the history of our nation as a democracy. While there is overlap, these landmark cases are separated into cases addressing:
- Foreign Policy
- Public Safety
- Death Penalty
- Speech, Press, and Protest
- Criminal Justice
- Politics, Society, Freedom, and Equality
The Supreme Court
The Supreme Court is the highest court in the United States. Article III of the U.S. Constitution created the Supreme Court and authorized Congress to pass laws establishing a system of lower courts. The Constitution elaborated neither the exact powers and prerogatives of the Supreme Court nor the organization of the Judicial Branch as a whole. Thus, it has been left to Congress and to the Justices of the Court through their decisions to develop the Federal Judiciary and a body of Federal law.
The number of Justices on the Supreme Court changed six times before settling at the present total of nine in 1869. Since the formation of the Court in 1790, there have been only 17 Chief Justices* and 102 Associate Justices, with Justices serving for an average of 16 years. On average a new Justice joins the Court almost every two years.
The Supreme Court of the United States hears about 100 to 150 appeals of the more than 7,000 cases it is asked to review every year. That means the decisions made by the 12 Circuit Courts of Appeals across the country and the Federal Circuit Court are the last word in thousands of cases.
Court of Appeals
In the federal court system’s present form, 94 district level trial courts and 13 courts of appeals sit below the Supreme Court. The 94 federal judicial districts are organized into 12 regional circuits, each of which has a court of appeals. The appellate court’s task is to determine whether or not the law was applied correctly in the trial court. Appeals courts consist of three judges and do not use a jury.
The appellate courts do not retry cases or hear new evidence. They do not hear witnesses testify. There is no jury. Appellate courts review the procedures and the decisions in the trial court to make sure that the proceedings were fair and that the proper law was applied correctly.
A court of appeals hears challenges to district court decisions from courts located within its circuit, as well as appeals from decisions of federal administrative agencies. In addition, the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit has nationwide jurisdiction to hear appeals in specialized cases, such as those involving patent laws, and cases decided by the U.S. Court of International Trade and the U.S. Court of Federal Claims.
The nation’s 94 trial courts are called U.S. District Courts. At a trial in a U.S. District Court, witnesses give testimony and a judge or jury decides who is guilty or not guilty — or who is liable or not liable. District courts resolve disputes by determining the facts and applying legal principles to decide who is right.
Trial courts include the district judge who tries the case and a jury that decides the case. Magistrate judges assist district judges in preparing cases for trial. They may also conduct trials in misdemeanor cases.
There is at least one district court in each state, and the District of Columbia. Each district includes a U.S. bankruptcy court as a unit of the district court.
Federal courts have exclusive jurisdiction over bankruptcy cases involving personal, business, or farm bankruptcy. This means a bankruptcy case cannot be filed in state court. Bankruptcy Appellate Panels (BAPs) are 3-judge panels authorized to hear appeals of bankruptcy court decisions. These panels are a unit of the federal courts of appeals, and must be established by that circuit. Five circuits have established panels: First Circuit, Sixth Circuit, Eighth Circuit, Ninth Circuit, and Tenth Circuit.
Shelby County v. Holder (2013)
Shelby County Facts:
The Fourteenth Amendment protects every person’s right to due process of law. The Fifteenth Amendment protects citizens from having their right to vote abridged or denied due to “race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” The Tenth Amendment reserves all rights not granted to the federal government to the individual states. Article Four of the Constitution guarantees the right of self-government for each state.
The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was enacted as a response to the nearly century-long history of voting discrimination. Section 5 prohibits eligible districts from enacting changes to their election laws and procedures without gaining official authorization. Section 4(b) defines the eligible districts as ones that had a voting test in place as of November 1, 1964 and less than 50% turnout for the 1964 presidential election. Such districts must prove to the Attorney General or a three-judge panel of a Washington, D.C. district court that the change “neither has the purpose nor will have the effect” of negatively impacting any individual’s right to vote based on race or minority status. Section 5 was originally enacted for five years, but has been continually renewed since that time.
Shelby County, Alabama, filed suit in district court and sought both a declaratory judgment that Section 5 and Section 4(b) are unconstitutional and a permanent injunction against their enforcement. The district court upheld the constitutionality of the Sections and granted summary judgment for the Attorney General. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit held that Congress did not exceed its powers by reauthorizing Section 5 and that Section 4(b) is still relevant to the issue of voting discrimination.
Shelby County Legal Questions and Answers
Q: Does the renewal of Section 5 of the Voter Rights Act under the constraints of Section 4(b) exceed Congress’ authority under the 14th and 15th amendments, and therefore violate the 10th Amendment and Article 4 of the Constitution?
A: Yes. Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act is unconstitutional.
Shelby County Conclusion
5-4 decision ruling Section 4(b) is unconstitutional because the coverage formula is based on data over 40 years old, making it no longer responsive to current needs and therefore an impermissible burden on the constitutional principles of federalism and equal sovereignty of the states. The Court did not strike down Section 5, but without Section 4(b), no jurisdiction will be subject to Section 5 preclearance unless Congress enacts a new coverage formula (locales that had poll tests and less than 50% turnout on 11/1/64).
The ruling has made it easier for state officials to make it harder for Black and other racio-ethnic minority voters to vote. Research shows that preclearance led to increases in minority congressional representation and increases in minority turnout.
Five years after the ruling, nearly 1,000 polling places had been closed in the U.S., with many of the closed polling places in predominantly African-American counties. A 2020 study found that the jurisdictions which had previously been covered by preclearance massively increased the rate of voter registration purges after the Shelby decision. Virtually all restrictions on voting subsequent to the ruling were by Republicans.