Democrats and civil rights attorneys lambasted the ruling as a setback for the very advancement Republicans highlighted, and the dissenters predicted a proliferation of laws designed to curtail minority participation in elections.
Rep. John Lewis, an Atlanta Democrat and civil rights activist who was beaten as he advocated for voting rights in the 1960s, called the ruling a "dagger."
President Barack Obama said he was "deeply disappointed" in the court overturning "well-established practices that help make sure voting is fair."
At Obama's Justice Department, officials opted for caution. They said the agency, which enforces federal voting laws, has in hand 276 submissions from state and local governments seeking preclearance. The department will issue guidance on those pending laws and procedures in the next few days, they said.
For five decades, the law required that certain states and localities with a history of discrimination submit all of their election laws — from new congressional district maps to the precinct locations and voting hours — to Justice Department lawyers for approval. Congress reauthorized the law multiple times, the latest in 2006 with overwhelming bipartisanship capped by a 98-0 Senate vote.
Election officials in Alabama's Shelby County, a suburban enclave nestled between civil rights hot spots Birmingham and Selma, brought suit asking the courts to invalidate Sections 4 and 5, which set preclearance parameters.
The Roberts majority, which included conservatives Samuel Alito, Anthony Kennedy, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas, sidestepped whether the advance approval requirement is constitutional, ostensibly leaving Section 5 on the books. But the justices, all appointed by Republican presidents, threw out the Section 4 formula that determined what jurisdictions must have the advance federal oversight. Roberts reasoned that the original formula — extended through reauthorizations — is obsolete because Congress based it on 1960s voter registration and turnout data. The chief justice emphasized, however, that Congress can rewrite the formula to reflect "current conditions," though he didn't offer recommendations or acknowledge the inherent political challenges involved.