The Supreme Court under Chief Justice John Roberts has hollowed out the historic Voting Rights Act, curtailed regulation of big political donors and limited challenges to partisan gerrymandering.
The final two decisions of the court session on Thursday continued this trend of Roberts’ stewardship that cuts to the heart of democracy and generally benefits conservatives over liberals, Republican voters over Democratic voters.
The pattern on voting rights traces to Roberts’ early years serving in the Ronald Reagan administration when the young GOP lawyer opposed racial remedies and argued for a constricted interpretation of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
That emphasis reemerged again Thursday, just as Attorney General Merrick Garland has pointed to a “dramatic rise in state legislative actions that will make it harder for millions of citizens to cast a vote that counts.” Dissenting liberal justices on Thursday observed that “efforts to suppress the minority vote continue” yet “no one would know this from reading the majority opinion.”
The annual court session had been largely defined by incremental and often consensus moves, including to reject a third challenge to the Obama-sponsored Affordable Care Act and to compromise on a clash between LGBTQ interests and religious liberty. But the final action in two politically charged disputes showed the justices returning to predictable camps, the six Republican-appointed conservatives prevailing over the three Democratic-appointed liberals.
The Roberts Court has also sought over the years to restrain government regulation of money in politics, most notably in the 2010 Citizens United decision. And two years ago, a Roberts-led majority prevented federal courts from ever hearing challenges to extreme partisan gerrymanders, drawn by state legislators to entrench the party in power.
In the final decision of the 2020-21 term, as Roberts tossed out the California mandate that nonprofits turn over the names of major donors, the chief rejected the state’s arguments regarding anti-fraud and other law enforcement purposes.
He emphasized that “disclosure requirements can chill” First Amendment free association rights, agreeing with the challengers that donors could be dissuaded by potential public exposure. The challenges were brought by the Americans for Prosperity Foundation, affiliated with the powerful Koch family, and the Thomas More Law Center, a Christian advocacy group.