A central provision of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 may be in peril, judging from tough questioning on Wednesday from the Supreme Court’s more conservative members. Justice Antonin Scalia called the provision, which requires nine states, mostly in the South, to get federal permission before changing voting procedures, a “perpetuation of racial entitlement.” Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. asked a skeptical question about whether people in the South are more racist than those in the North. Justice Anthony M. Kennedy asked how much longer Alabama must live “under the trusteeship of the United States government.” The court’s more liberal members, citing data and history, said Congress remained entitled to make the judgment that the provision was still needed in the covered jurisdictions. “It’s an old disease,” Justice Stephen G. Breyer said of efforts to thwart minority voting. “It’s gotten a lot better. A lot better. But it’s still there.” Four of the nine-member court’s five more conservative members asked largely skeptical questions about the law. The fifth, Justice Clarence Thomas, did not ask a question, as is typical.
Will the Supreme Court strike down what President Lyndon Johnson called “one of the most monumental laws in the entire history of American freedom”? That is the question before the justices on Wednesday, when they will hear a challenge to the constitutionality of a key provision of the Voting Rights Act. Enacted in 1965, it was designed to end, once and for all, the long, ugly history of racial discrimination in voting in America. The law, widely recognized as a remarkable success, was reauthorized in 2006 in a near-unanimous vote in Congress. As Americans have come to recognize, however, the only votes that really matter are those of the justices of the Supreme Court. And there’s every reason to suspect that five justices will vote to strike down one of the law’s most important provisions. That provision is known as “Section 5,” and it requires jurisdictions with a history of racial discrimination in voting to obtain the approval of the Department of Justice or a special court in Washington, D.C., before adopting any change in their voting rules. If one of these covered jurisdictions wants to move away from single-member districts to an at-large election, as several tried to do to reduce the voting strength of racial minorities, or change the voting hours, that change has to be “precleared” before going into effect.
Central parts of an election law dating back to the civil rights struggles of the 1960s, the Voting Rights Act, appeared to be in jeopardy Wednesday after the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in a challenge to them. NBC’s Pete Williams reported after the oral argument, “I think it’s a safe prediction to say that the Voting Rights Act, as it now stands, is not going to survive. The question is: how far will the Supreme Court go in striking parts of it down?” Williams said what seemed to concern a majority of the justices was “the fact that the law is too backward looking.” The justices were weighing an appeal from Shelby County, Ala., asking the court to find that Congress exceeded its power when it renewed the two key sections of the law in 2006. Under Section 5 of the law, nine states, mostly in the South, but also including Alaska and Arizona, as well as dozens of counties, townships, cities, and elected boards in other states, must get permission, or “preclearance,” from the Justice Department or a federal court in Washington for any change in voting procedures, no matter how small, that they seek to make.
As the Supreme Court prepares to hear arguments in a case challenging the Voting Rights Act of 1968, civil rights advocates are rising to support the anti-discriminatory law. But why? This hardly the first time that the 45-year-old law has been challenged. It’s been just four years since the country’s highest court stopped just short of striking down the Voting Rights Act altogether, choosing instead to make a decision on narrow grounds. On Wednesday, the justices will get a second chance in the case of Shelby County v. Holder — Shelby County is in Alabama — which seeks to determine if Congress overstepped its authority when it passed the 25-year-long renewal of the Voting Rights Act passed by Congress is 2006. In other words, the case should decide whether or not the Voting Rights Act is constitutional. This is a big deal for a lot of people.
The Supreme Court on Wednesday will consider whether to strike down a key provision of a federal law designed to protect minority voters. During the one-hour oral argument, the nine justices will hear the claim made by officials from Shelby County, Alabama, that Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act is no longer needed. The key issue is whether Congress has the authority under the 15th Amendment, which gave African Americans the right to vote, to require some states, mainly in the South, to show that any proposed election-law change would not discriminate against minority voters. Conservative activists and local officials in some jurisdictions covered by the provision have long complained about it, saying that it is an unacceptable infringement on state sovereignty.
National: Voting Rights Act: Is major portion outdated? Supreme Court to hear arguments | CSMonitor.com
It is recognized as the most powerful and effective civil rights law in American history. So why is the US Supreme Court being asked to declare a major portion of the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965 unconstitutional? On Wednesday, the high court is set to take up a legal challenge filed on behalf of Alabama’s Shelby County, alleging that Congress overstepped its authority when it voted overwhelmingly in 2006 to reauthorize Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act (VRA) for 25 years. At issue in the case, Shelby County v. Eric Holder (12-96), is a section of the law that gives the federal government extraordinary power to prevent state and local governments from discriminating against minority voters by undercutting their political clout in elections. In 1965, when the VRA was first enacted, many states, particularly in the Deep South, were actively working to prevent black and other minority voters from effectively exercising their right to vote. They had done it for decades through threats of violence, poll taxes, and literacy tests. Congress outlawed those blatant tactics, but the discrimination continued in more creative and subtle ways.
Conservative justices who hold a slim majority on the Supreme Court expressed grave doubts Wednesday that the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965 — the crowning achievement of the civil rights movement — remains constitutional nearly a half century later. The justices who could be the swing votes in an eventual ruling suggested that an outdated formula built into the law now discriminates against the South, much as Southern states discriminated against black voters by erecting barriers such as poll taxes and literacy tests. “Is it the government’s submission that the citizens in the South are more racist than the citizens in the North?” Chief Justice John Roberts asked Solicitor General Donald Verrilli, who argued that the law should remain intact. Roberts noted that Massachusetts has the worst black turnout in elections when compared with whites — and Mississippi the best. Although the more liberal justices defended Section 5 of the law, which requires all or parts of 16 states to clear any voting changes with the federal government, at times the die appeared cast inside the marble courtroom. That could mean a decision by June rendering that provision unconstitutional or sending it back to Congress.
Editorials: America Is One Step Closer to Neutering the Voting Rights Act | Andrew Cohen/The Atlantic
You could say that the call was made even before the polls closed. It was made with great clarity before the end of the scheduled hour of oral argument at the United States Supreme Court in Shelby County v. Holderby the folks at Scotusblog, the most popular and prestigious website covering the Court. It was presented in 140 characters or less to the world in the form of a Tweet: “Update from argument: VRA Sec 5 almost sure to be invalidated 5-4. Congress will have to reconsider the preclearance formula.” There are some instances where oral argument is useless in determining how a case will turn out. This does not figure to be one of those times. There look to be five votes to strike down the section of the law that requires officials in some jurisdictions to prove to the satisfaction of federal officials that their voting laws and redistricting rules do not discriminate against minority voters. We can be reasonably certain about this not just because of the questions and the answers offered up Wednesday but also because of the history of the Roberts Court and the Voting Rights Act. Chief Justice John Roberts, who campaigned against the law 30 years ago as a young Justice Department official, isn’t going to save the statute the way he saved the Affordable Care Act last June. Justice Clarence Thomas declared four years ago that it had to go. Justice Antonin Scalia on Wednesday declared the most successful anti-discrimination law in American history the perpetuation of a “racial entitlement.” Justice Samuel Alito echoed on Wednesday many of the same concerns he expressed during argument four years ago in a Section 5 case out of Texas. That’s four votes. The fifth would be Justice Anthony Kennedy, the least conservative of the five Republican appointees. Lyle Denniston, a reporter who has daily covered the Supreme Court since before the passage of the 1965 law, wrote Wednesday of some wiggle room he perceived in a comment Justice Kennedy made about how the plaintiff in the case — Shelby County, Alabama — may not be in proper position to challenge Section 5 (or the preclearance coverage formula of Section 4) because of its past record of voting discrimination.
Sometimes, in a Supreme Court argument, a single phrase can speak volumes. Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, the one member of the Court who bore the most watching because the other eight seemed clearly to divide evenly, used the phrase “trusteeship of the United States government” as a shorthand way to describe how he views the regime set up by the Voting Rights Act of 1965 works. Of course, he meant it as a denunciation. If Kennedy believes that there is no way to justify any longer that kind of oversight of nine states that have to do the most to obey the 1965 law, that law may well be doomed. But it also was Kennedy who left the impression that he might be willing to go along with a potential way to short-circuit the case of Shelby County v. Holder, and allow the law to survive for some time more. The argument Wednesday in one of the most important cases of the Court’s current Term — a hearing that ran seventeen minutes longer than the allotted hour — left no doubt that four of the Justices (and maybe Kennedy with them) are just as troubled as they were four years ago when they last lambasted the selective enforcement approach mandated by history’s most successful civil rights law. Equally, there was no doubt that four Justices — including the two newest members — were prepared to let Congress have its way with the twenty-five-year extension of the law.
The 1965 Voting Rights Act remains one of this country’s foremost accomplishments. Constitutional amendments following the Civil War barred states and localities from abridging the right to vote on the basis of race, yet for the better part of a century, white racists managed to stay a step ahead of the federal government’s enforcement of these protections. The Voting Rights Act was designed to stamp out the varied and shifting strategies local officials used to prevent African Americans from voting. On Wednesday the Supreme Court will consider whether the Voting Rights Act has worked so well that its toughest rules have now outlived their time. Provisions of the act require certain states and localities with a history of discrimination to clear any proposed change in voting rules with the federal government. Shelby County, Alabama, claims that immense progress since 1965 in rooting out official discrimination renders pre-clearance an unwarranted burden on those jurisdictions that must comply, unjustifiably subjecting some states to unequal treatment and violating their constitutional prerogative to regulate elections within their borders.