The US Supreme Court just now issued its disappointing decision in the case of Shelby County v. Holder, in which an Alabama county challenged a rule designed to prevent voter suppression, particularly in the South. The Voting Rights Act requires the US Department of Justice to give its permission before places with a history of racially discriminatory voting practices can change any voting regulations.

In a 5-4 split, the justices found that Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act is unconstitutional. That section concerns the formula for determining which jurisdictions are still discriminating and must seek the DOJ's permission to change voting rules. "Its formula can no longer be used as a basis for subjecting jurisdictions to preclearance," writes Chief Justice Roberts for the majority. (Roberts is joined by Justices Scalia, Kennedy, Thomas, and Alito.) The decision is here. Background on the case is here.

The decision, in essence, finds that we cannot be certain where voter discrimination is happening—and the court hamstrings the law until our disabled Congress preforms a spectacular gymnastic feat.

This ruling doesn't apply directly to Section 5—which is considered the lynchpin of the law for modifying rules—but until there is a new formula to identify which counties are discriminating, Section 5 is unenforceable.

In other words, counties with a pattern of keeping people of color from the polls now have a carte blanche to change the rules as they see fit... unless Congress acts.

The court said that Congress could tweak the formula to identify problem counties: "Our decision in no way affects the permanent, nationwide ban on racial discrimination in voting found in [Section] 2. We issue no holding on [Section] 5 itself, only on the coverage formula. Congress may draft another formula based on current conditions."

Which would be great, except Congress is paralyzed. The House couldn't even marshal the Farm Bill out the door last week.

UPDATE: Here is Justice Ginsberg's excellent dissent.