This is a case about Congress's enumerated powers. It's not about Congress violating rights, but the scope of its power under the 15th Amendment to enforce the right guaranteed by that amendment (the right against race discrimination in voting). This is a power to be used against state and local government, so the scope of that power implicates federalism doctrine, including the “fundamental principle of equal sovereignty” among the states.
The states can, under some circumstances, be treated differently, and they have been under the Voting Rights Act, which survived attack in the past. The problem now is that Congress relies on a formula that uses voter turnout statistics from 1972, and this covers only 9 states (and some counties). These states, subject to different procedures, wait "months or years and expend funds to implement a validly enacted law," while the other states "can typically put the same law into effect immediately, through the normal legislative process."
Roberts pays respect to the VRA: "The Act has proved immensely successful at redressing racial discrimination and integrating the voting process." And he acknowledges that "[p]roblems remain." But the Act was "reauthorized — as if nothing had changed."
The Government falls back to the argument that because the formula was relevant in 1965, its continued use is permissible so long as any discrimination remains in the States Congress identified back then — regardless of how that discrimination compares to discrimination in States unburdened by coverage....It's not enough to say — as the dissent does — but these covered states still commit violations, Roberts says.
The [15th] Amendment is not designed to punish for the past; its purpose is to ensure a better future.... To serve that purpose, Congress — if it is to divide the States — must identify those jurisdictions to be singled out on a basis that makes sense in light of current conditions....
[T]hat is like saying that a driver pulled over pursuant to a policy of stopping all redheads cannot complain about that policy, if it turns out his license has expired.The Chief stresses that the defect lies entirely in using the old formula to treat the states differently. The Court will be criticized in the political arena, but the political response is clearly stated: "Congress may draft another formula based on current conditions."
ADDED: From the dissent by Justice Ginsburg:
Hubris is a fit word for today’s demolition of the VRA.This is "hardly... an exemplar of restrained and moderate decisionmaking," because the Court accepts Shelby County's facial challenge to the law:
[T]he Court’s opinion in this case contains not a word explaining why Congress lacks the power to subject to preclearance the particular plaintiff that initiated this lawsuit — Shelby County, Alabama. The reason for the Court’s silence is apparent, for as applied to Shelby County, the VRA’s preclearance requirement is hardly contestable.I think the Court did have a word of explanation. The word was "redheads." See above.
Alabama is home to Selma.... Although circumstances in Alabama have changed, serious concerns remain....