The fifty states are unequal in many respects—population (and thus representation in the House of Representatives), wealth, resources, climate, economic foundations, and industrial and technological development, to name a few. Federal legislation, therefore, often affects states unequally, and at times even singles out particular states for special treatment. Is such legislation suspect? In dicta in Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District Number One v. Holder (NAMUDNO), the Supreme Court cryptically suggested that it might be. This term, in Shelby County v. Holder, the Court is poised to revisit the issue presented in NAMUDNO: whether section 5 of the Voting Rights Act (VRA), which imposes special requirements on certain states and jurisdictions with histories of discrimination, is constitutional. In the process, the Court could choose to give the NAMUDNO dicta some bite.
The Court should not do so. The suggestion that federal legislation must treat states equally is a chimera, without support in constitutional text, history, or precedent. It is particularly unfounded with respect to legislation, like section 5 of the VRA, that is based on Congress’s authority under the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to eradicate discriminatory denials of the right to vote. A constitutional requirement that legislation cannot treat states differently would call into question many typical legislative acts. The idea should be put to rest before it causes mischief.