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.
Hans von Spakovsky, a senior legal fellow with the conservative Heritage Foundation who formerly worked in the Justice Department’s civil rights division, said that the “terrible history” that warranted Section 5’s intrusion on state authority was over.
“There’s no evidence to show that these covered areas are somehow in worse shape than other parts of the country,” said von Spakovsky, who with eight other officials from Republican administrations submitted a brief siding with the Shelby County officials.
The Obama administration, backed by civil rights activists, is fighting to save the provision. Solicitor General Donald Verrilli, the administration’s top advocate, will be arguing the case. Last year, he argued successfully in defense of President Barack Obama’s 2010 healthcare overhaul.
Defenders of the law challenge the conservative reading of recent history, pointing in part to litigation prior to the 2012 election, including two cases out of Texas. Federal courts blocked a strict new voter-identification law and a redistricting plan, saying they would hurt minority voters. Both cases are ongoing.
“Without Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, worse laws would be in place and the fundamental rights of many Americans would be diminished,” Senator Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee and a supporter of the provision, said on Tuesday.