The state of Alabama has officially sided with Shelby County in its fight to have key sections of the Voting Rights Act declared unconstitutional. “To be clear: There are still race-relations problems in Alabama, just as there are race-relations problems in every state of our Union. But today’s Alabama has come a long way from the past that justified (Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act) some 40 years ago,” wrote lawyers for the Alabama Attorney General’s Office.
Shelby County, a mostly white and strongly Republican area, sued the U.S. Justice Department last year over the decision by Congress in 2006 to extend the historic civil rights-era law by another 25 years. The county’s case, financed by a nonprofit interest group, argues that the law is outdated and too much of a burden because it requires that local election procedures get approved in advance by the federal government.
Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act applies to all or part of 16 states, including Alabama, with a history of discrimination against minority voters. U.S. District Judge John Bates in the District of Columbia ruled against Shelby County in September. In his decision, he deferred to Congress and the evidence it gathered of recent discrimination at the ballot box, leading up to a strong bipartisan vote to renew the law. Shelby County appealed, and the case will be heard Jan. 19 by a panel of three federal appeals court judges in Washington.
No matter the outcome, the case seems destined for the U.S. Supreme Court, where justices already have shown an interest in deciding whether Section 5 still is necessary.
The state of Alabama was not a party in the case but this month intervened on Shelby County’s behalf in written arguments for the appeal. The state, as it has done in similar challenges to the Voting Rights Act in the past, cited statistics showing blacks in Alabama register to vote, vote, and are elected in greater numbers than ever before. This new filing, however, takes the argument one step further and expressly asks that Section 5 be declared unconstitutional.