Shelby County’s name is on the case, but a one-man Washington, D.C., legal defense fund with private donors is the driving force behind one of the most important constitutional challenges to the 1965 Voting Rights Act. The Project on Fair Representation is the nonprofit run by Edward Blum, a one-time congressional candidate in Texas with two decades of experience in litigation over affirmative action, redistricting and voting rights. After the U.S. Supreme Court in 2009 expressed some reservations about the constitutionality of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act but no official ruling, Blum found in Shelby County a potential litigant to try again: a local government that had grown weary of the burdens of the Voting Rights Act and a willingness to take that complaint all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. So the Shelby County Commission agreed to let Blum’s Project on Fair Representation hire the lawyers and file the case that alleges two key parts of the landmark civil rights law are outdated and no longer necessary.
Shelby County lost the first round in federal court last year; this month, the county’s appeal was heard by a three-judge panel in Washington. Regardless of the outcome, the losing side is expected to petition the U.S. Supreme Court, which has already shown an interest in revisiting the issue.
A central question is whether those parts of the country covered by Section 5 of the law — including all of Alabama — can be trusted to run their elections fairly without the strict oversight of the federal government. Shelby County officials say they can; the U.S. Justice Department, defending Congress’ renewal of the law in 2006, says they can’t.