Iron-fisted enforcement of the 1965 Voting Rights Act transformed American politics, especially in the South, by making sure minorities had a clear path to the ballot box and an equal shot at public service. Forty-eight years later, after the re-election of an African-American president, the heart of that law is on trial. The Supreme Court will hear oral arguments Wednesday in a case that is sure to ignite a debate over how far the country has progressed on racial issues and whether minority voters still need extra protection. Shelby County, Ala., opposed by the Justice Department and civil rights groups, wants two key sections of the Voting Rights Act declared unconstitutional. Section 5 bars election officials in jurisdictions with a history of discrimination from changing their voting procedures unless they first prove the changes won’t hurt minorities. Section 4b uses a formula to determine which states, counties and municipalities are subject to Section 5. Shelby County says the provisions are outmoded and unfair to parts of the country that have transcended their discriminatory pasts.
Civil rights groups counter that the provisions are the best defense against a return to the days when racism permeated election procedures in many parts of the country, particularly the South.
“This idea that we can stop with the job half done and see how it works out — that is not meeting the promise and possibility of the Constitution,” said Debo Adegbile, counsel to the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and a lawyer in the case.
Previous attempts to gut the Voting Rights Act have failed, and in 2006, Congress extended the law for 25 years. But in 2009, the Supreme Court questioned whether the law’s “current burdens” were justified by “current needs.”