The Supreme Court's decision to scrap the formula used to activate the landmark 1965 Voting Rights Act comes at a time it is needed more than at any time since the era in which it was first enacted.
The decision will make it far easier for Republicans to enact the kind of restrictive voter laws they have passed at the state level since 2010. That, in turn, could strengthen their hold on state governments and congressional districts.
Just last year, the Justice Department invoked the law to block Texas, South Carolina and Florida measures it contended discriminated against minority voters. In determining the act's continued viability in 2006, Congress found that, in the prior quarter-century, it had been used to block more than 700 proposed laws and regulations.
But in a 5-4 decision, the court concluded the formula used to apply the law's Section 5 requirement for Justice Department preclearance of voting law changes to nine predominantly Southern states and scattered counties elsewhere is outdated and can't be used anymore. It left adoption of an updated formula to Congress at a time when partisan divisions will make that very difficult to do.
The court had barely issued its verdict when Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott triumphantly announced the state's voter identification law, which a federal court ruled discriminatory, would take effect. Because it will likely make it harder for many Hispanics, blacks and poor people to vote, that could help the GOP extend its hold despite a growing Hispanic population.
The future of a second Texas case, involving redistricting, is more uncertain. But the two cases illustrate the value of the act's requirement that states with a history of racial discrimination in voting show that changes in laws and procedures won't harm minorities.
In the redistricting case, three federal judges ruled that laws passed by the Texas legislature showed "discriminatory intent" against both Latinos and African-Americans. Though the state's population growth was mainly Hispanic, the Legislature created four new white districts.
In the other case, federal judges struck down the 2011 voter ID law on grounds it would disproportionally damage Hispanic and black voters. The law, designed to counter alleged "voter fraud" Abbott has had trouble delineating, requires voters to have a driver's license, passport, citizenship certificate, military identification or gun permit. Those who don't have a driver's license can get a free election identification card but must show a birth certificate, which costs $22.
But the Justice Department noted that one-third of the state's 254 counties don't have motor vehicle offices, and others in rural areas have only limited hours, making it hard for many poor residents to obtain the documents.
The Voting Rights Act was used last year to block a South Carolina voter ID law and a Florida effort to limit early voting days.
These measures were not unique; Republican legislatures and governors in many states passed voter identification or other restrictive laws. The laws vary from the restrictive Texas statute to others allowing a broader array of identifying documents such as utility bills that passed legal muster.
Last week's decision won't prevent challenges to questionable measures. But rather than the federal government blocking them up front and requiring the state to prove it wrong, the ruling will put the burden on individuals and groups to show they have been discriminated against.
That reverses the entire concept underlying the civil rights measures of the 1950s and 1960s. They relieved individuals of initiating legal actions against local officials that might subject them to personal peril and authorized the federal government to take the initiative.
Those laws worked. To the Roberts court, though, racial progress requires abandoning the cause.
Carl P. Leubsdorf is the former Washington bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News. Email him at email@example.com.