I Never Want to Hear Conservatives Complain About “Judicial Activism” Again

The Supreme Court just eviscerated the Voting Rights Act. The lesson? Don't believe conservatives when they advocate for "judicial restraint."

Hello conservatives, I have a request for you: Please, please, please, for the love of God, please never complain about “judicial activism” ever again.

If you’re celebrating Tuesday’s Supreme Court ruling that gutted the Voting Rights Act, if you believe that the court arrived at the right decision, then your right to complain about unelected judges who bend the law to their personal preferences — instead of the other way around, as is proper — is forfeit. Because your judges, the guys who promised to call cases as rigorously as balls and strikes, just did something more than decide they know better than Congress: They decided they know better than the Constitution itself.

Why? Mostly, ultimately in the service of making it harder for African-Americans and other minorities to vote.

Does this seem like hyperbole to you? Let us then quote the 15th Amendment in its entirety:

Section 1. The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.

Section 2. The Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.

There is one bit of wiggle room there, admittedly: The word “appropriate” almost always depends on the eye of the beholder. But generally speaking, Tuesday’s ruling seems to violate conservatives’ judicial philosophy — including the stand against hated “judicial activism” — in two significant ways:

• It ignores the plain meaning of the 15th Amendment. Period. Look at the language again. Only Congress has the power to decide how to guarantee equal access to the voting booth.

• It shoves aside the overwhelming consensus of Congress — the Voting Rights Act was renewed in 2006 by a vote of 390-33 in the House and 98-0(!!!!!) in the Senate — in favor of the considered judgement of five unelected men.

Conservatives usually advocate that judges follow the plain meaning of the law — and where there is confusion about that plain meaning, deference to Congress’s decisions. Anything else, they have said for decades, amounts to “judicial activism,” an illegitimate usurpation of democracy by the government’s least democratic branch. It is difficult, and maybe impossible, to reconcile these propositions with Tuesday’s ruling.

Let’s be clear: Racism — both as a matter of law, and as a fact of society — isn’t as pervasive as it once was. But it still exists, and Republicans, in particular, have found it to their electoral advantage to make it as difficult as possible for minorities to gain access to the polls. (Pennsylvania’s own battles over a Voter ID law being the latest local proof of this.) The Supreme Court just eviscerated the only tool that has ever guaranteed African-Americans widespread access to polls throughout the country. It is a shame.

Was the law perfect? No. But the Constitution does not require perfection. In this case, it requires only that Congress take the lead in making sure minorities can vote. The Supreme Court has decided differently. That giggling you hear? It’s the sound of five justices, laughing hysterically at all the suckers who took them seriously when they called for judicial restraint. They never really meant it.