Document Type

Book Chapter

Publication Date



Decided on June 23, 2013, Shelby County v. Holder scrapped the coverage formula set forth in Section 4(b) of the Voting Rights Act (VRA). Congress first enacted this formula in 1965 and, in it, set forth criteria to identify places with low levels of voter participation that was likely attributable to racial discrimination. Once identified, "covered" jurisdictions needed to obtain federal approval, known as preclearance, before changing any electoral practice. Specifically, they needed to demonstrate to the U.S. Department of Justice or a federal court that proposed changes were not discriminatory in purpose or effect. Shelby County lifted the preclearance requirement by tossing out the 4(b) criteria that had subjected jurisdictions to it.

This chapter tells the story of Shelby County v. Holder. Part I locates its origin long before the 2013 ruling. It describes Congress's first efforts to enforce the Fifteenth Amendment, the Supreme Court's response to those efforts, and the consequences that followed. Part II examines Congress's 1965 decision to craft the formula Shelby County scrapped; it describes the core provisions of the VRA as originally enacted, the initial amendments to it, and pivotal judicial interpretations of these provisions prior to 2006. Part III looks at the 2006 reauthorization of the VRA and the emergence of what the chapter will refer to as the Shelby County problem, namely, the difficulty for Congress to justify the maintenance or re-enactment of an existing remedy for constitutional violations as a proper exercise of its enforcement powers under the Reconstruction-era Amendments to the Constitution. Part III also describes how the Court handled that problem in the litigation leading up to Shelby County. Part IV describes the Shelby County litigation, including both lower court rulings and the Supreme Court's decision. Part V examines the decision's impact and implications.


Reprinted with permission of West Academic. Originally published as Katz, Elen D. "The Shelby County Problem." In Election Law Stories, edited by J. A. Dougals and E. D. Mazo, 505-40. St. Paul, MN: West Academic Publishing, 2016.