Inside Story America

Is the US redefining civil rights?

As the US Supreme Court has handed down major civil rights rulings, we analyse the impact on equality in the US.

The US Supreme Court has handed down major rulings that will likely have a lasting impact on civil rights.

On Wednesday, June 26, it ruled that the Defense of Marriage Act – a law that defined marriage as only between a man and a woman and therefore barred the federal government from recognising same-sex marriage – is unconstitutional.

Under the old system a state could bailout if it had a clean record for 10 years … I think something else that the Chief Justice ignores is the fact that we are not just talking about turn out a registration of minorities, we are talking about politicians manipulating rules like redistricting rules to diminish the influence of a particular population. So I think it is a little more complex than the chief presents.

by Spencer Overton, a law professor at George Town University

But just 24 hours earlier it was a very different atmosphere – when the Supreme Court struck down key parts of the Voting Rights Act, one of the key accomplishments of the civil rights movement.

The law made it mandatory for states with a history of racism to get approval from the Department of Justice before changing any electoral laws.

On Tuesday, June 25, the Supreme Court judged that the formula to determine which states needed extra scrutiny is outdated.

Chief Justice John Roberts said that due to the effectiveness of the Voting Rights Act, it needed to be amended to reflect modern racial views.

“During that time, largely because of the Voting Rights Act, voting tests were abolished, disparities in voter registration and turnout due to race were erased, and African-Americans attained political office in record numbers. And yet the coverage formula that Congress reauthorised in 2006 ignores these developments, keeping the focus on decades-old data relevant to decades-old problems, rather than current data reflecting current needs,” Roberts said.

A poll conducted last month show that Americans are split almost evenly on the necessity of the Voting Rights Act: while 49 percent believe the law is still necessary, 44 percent say it is no longer needed.

So was it a wise decision to struck down key parts of the Voting Rights Act? Is the US redefining their civil rights? And what do these decisions mean for equality in the US?

To discuss this, Inside Story Americas, with presenter Shihab Rattansi, are guests: Spencer Overton; a law professor at George Washington University and author of the book Stealing Democracy: The New Politics of Voter Suppression; Bruce Fien, a constitutional lawyer and the former US Associate Deputy Attorney General under President Ronald Reagan; and Paul Campos, a law professor at the University of Colorado Boulder.

“While it’s definitely a victory for gay rights in this country, it’s not nearly as far-reaching or ground-breaking a kind of decision it’s been characterised immediately in its wake …. Right now we have a very unsettled situation, we have a situation in which the federal government is prohibited from not recognising same-sex marriages that are recognised by states that recognise such marriages.”

– Paul Campus, a law professor at the University of Colorado Boulder