In a 5-4 decision that pitted the conservative justices against the liberal ones, the Supreme Court struck down Section 4(b) of the Voting Rights Act today. The court said the section, which required certain regions of the country — mainly southern states — to get clearance from Justice Department before they made any change to voting laws or procedures, was unconstitutional.

Section 4 was passed along with the rest of the VOting Rights Act by Congress in 1965 to ensure those covered states did not violate the VRA by adopting procedures to prevent minority groups from voting in elections. Congress has renewed it ever since, essentially freezing the “pre-clearance requirements” for those regions to standards based in the mid-60s when the battles of the Civil Rights era were still raging. States and local governments have have chafed at still being under the restrictions 50 years later. Defenders of the law say that is necessary though to prevent backsliding in those regions.

A narrow majority of the Supreme Court said that the pre-clearance requirements could not be justified anymore. They said this particularly violates the 10th Amendment:

Nearly 50 years later, things have changed dramatically. Largely because of the Voting Rights Act, “[v]oter turnout and registration rates” in covered jurisdictions “now approach parity. Blatantly discriminatory evasions of federal decrees are rare. And minority  candidates hold office at unprecedented levels.” … The tests and devices that blocked ballot access have  been forbidden nationwide for over 40 years. Yet the Act has not eased (the) restrictions or narrowed the scope of (the) coverage formula  along the way. Instead those extraordinary and unprecedented features have been reauthorized as if nothing has changed, and they have grown even stronger.

Chief Justice Roberts wrote the opinion and was joined by Justices Thomas, Scalia, Alito and Kennedy. Thomas wrote a concurring opinion in which he argued that the VRA itself should be struck down.

The liberal justices took strong issue with the majority’s ruling. Justice Ginsburg wrote the opinion and was joined by Kagan, Sotomayor and Breyer. She said:

Although the VRA wrought dramatic changes in the realization of minority voting rights, the Act, to date, surely has not eliminated all vestiges of discrimination against the exercise of the franchise by minority citizens. Jurisdictions covered by the preclearance requirement continued to submit, in large numbers, proposed changes to voting laws that the Attorney General declined to ap­prove, auguring that barriers to minority voting would quickly resurface were the preclearance remedy elimi­nated.