Constitutional Law Expert Reflects on Momentous Week for Supreme Court

David Yalof, professor of political science. (Peter Morenus/UConn File Photo)

By: Tom Breen

This week has been one of the most significant in recent memory for the U.S. Supreme Court, which issued rulings on major cases that touched on affirmative action, voting rights, and gay marriage. UConn political science professor David Yalof, an expert on constitutional law and judicial politics quoted widely in the media, offers an early take on what the court did and what it means.

Affirmative Action

The case Fisher v. University of Texas challenged the use of race as a factor in college admissions. Prior to the court’s ruling on Monday, many observers said affirmative action could be significantly affected by the justices’ decision. Instead, though, the justices sent the case back to a lower court for review, as Yalof explains.

“In essence, the court sent the case back because they believed the lower court had failed to apply strict scrutiny to the policy in the way they were supposed to. In a 2003 case called Grutter v. Bollinger, the Supreme Court ruled that a higher education institution could take race into account in the admissions process, so long as it was narrowly tailored to meet the compelling state interest of having a diverse educational environment. In this case, they just believed the lower court had failed to apply that ‘narrowly tailored’ standard in reviewing the University of Texas’ policy.

“We could see this case, and many people predict we will see this case again, in a few years, based on what the lower court does. The complicating factor is that there’s a case the Supreme Court has accepted for next year which has to do with an amendment to the Michigan constitution that effectively prohibits affirmative action. We may get a decision on that that renders everything else moot and void.”

Voting Rights Act

Ruling 5-4 in the case Shelby County v. Holder, the court invalidated a portion of the landmark 1965 legislation that had required nine states, mostly in the South, to get Justice Department approval before making any changes to election or voting laws. The decision is a hugely significant one, Yalof says:

“This is probably the most momentous decision on the Voting Rights Act since it was passed in 1965. This section of the act applied to a number of states with a long history of discrimination against African Americans exercising their voting rights. What the Supreme Court basically said is that they’re no longer to be treated any differently from any other state – that the time has passed when we need to do this.

“It’s interesting because I think most sides agree that this specific provision of the Voting Rights Act – which, by the way, was reauthorized overwhelmingly by Congress in 2006 – has been a very successful and effective portion of the law.

“Now these states will no longer have to get federal approval for redistricting or other changes, unless Congress does what the court recommends and comes up with new criteria for which states should have to undergo this additional approval. The problem there is that Congress has been having trouble finding a cohesive approach to almost anything lately, so that kind of legislation seems very unlikely.”

Read more at UConn Today.

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