To the winner goes the attorneys’ fees. That’s often how federal civil litigation works, with hundreds of statutes in the books entitling prevailing plaintiffs fee awards. But not for Shelby County. A federal appeals court on Tuesday ruled that the Alabama county isn’t owed any legal fees from the federal government despite winning its challenge against a core provision of the Voting Rights Act. The ruling comes two years after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the formula in the act used to identify jurisdictions that historically suppressed minority voters. Those states and voting districts, mostly in the South, were required to seek Washington’s approval before changing election practices. In a 5-4 vote, the high court agreed with the Shelby County that the formula isn’t constitutionally valid because it’s based on decades-old voter-participation data that may not reflect more recent progress. After its Supreme Court victory, Shelby County sought more than $2 million in attorneys’ fees and costs. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, affirming a lower court, ruled that the federal government had no obligation to pay up.
The Department of Justice announced Tuesday afternoon it will oversee the August 7 election in Shelby County. Shelby County Election Commission Chairman Robert Meyers requested federal oversight during a phone call to the Office of the Attorney General Tuesday morning. Federal monitors will be sent to observe the Shelby County general election, as well as the federal and state primary. Polling places will be monitored, and a Civil Rights Division attorney will be in contact with local election officials. Meyers told WREG while he’s sure things will go smoothly Thursday, adding federal monitors should avoid any claims of shady business going on after the results are in. Both Shelby County Democrats and Republicans requested the feds to step in this week.
Shelby County Democratic Party chairman Bryan Carson said Thursday he will ask for federal monitors to oversee the county election after a glitch that he claimed caused problems for early voters during the day. But Election Commission chairman Robert Meyers said the problem should not have impacted votes being cast. Meyers said a construction crew dropped a load of rocks over ground near the early voting location at the Agricenter that was on top of a fiber-optic line. The line was used for precincts to access the registration database when voters check in, he said, and the glitch impacted more than just the Agricenter site. “That’s really kind of a back-of-the-house operation,” Meyers said. And that’s separate from the actual voting machines, which store votes on memory cards.
National: Judge denies attorneys’ fees for Shelby County in voting rights case | Montgomery Advertiser
Shelby County won the case that led the Supreme Court to strike down part of the Voting Rights Act, but that victory doesn’t mean the federal government should pay the county’s lawyers, a judge ruled last week. Washington D.C.-based lawyers for Shelby County had asked for $2 million in fees for the team that pursued the case all the way to the nation’s highest court. The case had challenged the Voting Rights Act’s formula that was used to determine which parts of the country needed to get pre-approval from the Justice Department before making any changes to their election procedures. The court found the formula unconstitutional. Its ruling ended the “pre-clearance” process for Alabama and several other states, a historic shift in how the federal government enforces anti-discrimination laws meant to protect minority voters.
The now ongoing FBI’s investigation of the Shelby County Election Administrator’s office, first reported as imminent by the Flyer in December, is moving — in the often-used bureaucratic phrase — “with all deliberate speed.” So far one employee of the Election Administrator’s office has been interviewed by the FBI, but five more designated on the Bureau’s ask list have not been, nor has the Administrator himself, Richard Holden. Earlier reports had suggested that Holden would be interviewed this week, but Robert Meyers, chairman of the Shelby County Election Commission, said he had been informed that Holden’s interview had been rescheduled for some time in early February. Meyers confirmed that, besides Holden himself, the FBI had designated six employees for interviews — “two in voter registration, three in the election officials department, and one trainer.” The chairman — one of three Republicans on the five-member Commission, which also includes two Democrats — declined, on grounds of “fairness,” to identify the names of the six employees involved, or to indicate the category of the employee already interviewed.
Fights over the laws governing voting rights are nothing new – but 2014 is shaping up to be a big year for court decisions that will determine whether millions of Americans will face new and unnecessary barriers at the polls. Since the disputed 2000 elections, states have increasingly moved to change voting rules, and litigation on these issues has more than doubled. In June 2013, the United States Supreme Court decided in Shelby County v. Holder to strike down a key provision of the 1965 Voting Rights Act that had long required states with a history of discrimination to “pre-clear” proposed voting rule changes with the U.S. Department of Justice. Republican-led states have since redoubled efforts to restrict voting – and civil rights groups and the Justice Department have responded by filing new challenges. In 2014, the courts will weigh in, revealing what role, if any, U.S. judges will play in checking moves to make voting harder.
Texas: Voter identification: Mischief at the polls – How Texas’s new voter-identity law works in practice | The Economist
When Texas passed its new voter-identification law, in 2011, the Republicans who dominate state politics rejoiced. This, they said, would help guarantee “the integrity of state elections”. Nonsense, said Democrats, who accuse Republicans of using voter-ID laws to make it harder for poor people and minorities to vote. Republicans retort that electoral fraud is real. In 2012 Texas’s attorney-general, Greg Abbott, boasted that his office had caught more than 50 cheats between 2002 and 2012. That is not a big number, among the more than 13m registered voters in Texas. But it is not nothing. In November Texans (at least, those with a state-issued photo ID) had their first chance to vote since the law was implemented. The delay was caused by the usual legal wrangling round voter-ID laws. In 2012 a federal court blocked Texas’s law from taking effect. Similarly strict regulations were already in place elsewhere, but under the Voting Rights Act of 1965 Texas was subject to federal “preclearance” on any new voting rules. “Preclearance” is a sort of naughty step for states that, in the past, have hindered voting by minorities. The Texan law was therefore in limbo until June, when the Supreme Court addressed the Voting Rights Act in Shelby County v Holder, a dispute between an Alabama county and the attorney-general of the United States, Eric Holder.
The U.S. Department of Justice is fighting a request from the lawyers for Shelby Co., Ala., for more than $2 million in legal fees and costs tied to their challenge of the constitutionality of a provision of the Voting Rights Act. The government on Nov. 26 in Washington federal district court filed its opposition to the attorney fees and litigation expenses that Shelby County’s lawyers—led by Bert Rein of Wiley Rein—contend they should receive for their work. The U.S. Supreme Court in June, in a 5-4 decision, struck down the provision of the Voting Rights Act that established the formula for determining which jurisdictions were required to give the Justice Department or a federal court the authority to review certain electoral changes before they were implemented.
The Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that a key provision of the landmark Voting Rights Act cannot be enforced unless Congress comes up with a new way of determining which states and localities require federal monitoring of elections. The justices said in 5-4 vote that the law Congress most recently renewed in 2006 relies on 40-year-old data that does not reflect racial progress and changes in U.S. society. The court did not strike down the advance approval requirement of the law that has been used, mainly in the South, to open up polling places to minority voters in the nearly half century since it was first enacted in 1965. But the justices did say lawmakers must update the formula for determining which parts of the country must seek Washington’s approval, in advance, for election changes. Chief Justice John Roberts said for the conservative majority that Congress “may draft another formula based on current conditions.”
The preclearance provision of the Voting Rights Act required that all or part of 15 states submit their election changes to federal officials for approval. Today, five members of the Court ruled that the Section 4 coverage formula of the Voting Rights Act is unconstitutional and can no longer be used to require that areas preclear their election rules with federal officials. The Court invalidated the coverage formula because the Justices believed the formula was based on outdated election data from the 1960s and 1970s. Today’s Supreme Court decision is a setback for democracy. Unfortunately, today’s decision gives politicians even more power to unfairly manipulate election rules and target Americans based on how they look or talk. There is overwhelming evidence that unfair voting rules remain a very real threat—too many political operatives currently manipulate rules to diminish the voices of growing minority communities.
Joyce Ladner was a senior at Tougaloo College in Jackson, Miss., in the early 1960s when she failed the voter registration literacy test for the third time. But she said she already knew the registrar would not pass her because she was black. And aside from questions like, “How many grains of salt are in a quart jar,” one stood out to her and she knew her answer would not sit well with the registrar. “What are the characteristics of a good citizen?” she read. Her response: “One who follows just laws and disobeys unjust laws.” Ladner later registered under a court order and helped others exercise that same right by working as a field organizer with her sister Dorrie Ladner and South Carolina native Cleveland Sellers in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). On Aug. 6, 1965, after years of tumultuous violence and lives lost, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act.
Before the end of this month, the Supreme Court is expected to decide Shelby County, Ala. v. Holder, a constitutional challenge to the preclearance provision of the Voting Rights Act, one of the act’s most important guarantees against racial discrimination in voting. Shelby County has argued that the act is unnecessary and outdated and has urged the Supreme Court to hold it unconstitutional on that basis. With the court decision looming, a number of recent commentators have suggested that, in light of recent voter turnout data, the Voting Rights Act is no longer needed. They are wrong. In The Wall Street Journal last month, examining what he called the “good news about race and voting,” Andrew Kohut of the Pew Research Center argues that in recent presidential elections very few citizens, whatever their race, have reported difficulties going to the polls to exercise their right to vote. Mr. Kohut noted that in the last several presidential elections, African-American turnout has steadily increased. Based on the “good news” from this small slice of evidence, Mr. Kohut suggests that opponents of the Voting Rights Act could argue “the legislation has accomplished its objective of ending racial discrimination in voting and is no longer needed.”
Before the current U.S. Supreme Court term ends in late June, the justices will decide the fate of the most potent part of a law widely considered the most important piece of civil rights legislation ever passed by Congress ― the Voting Rights Act of 1965. If the court were to strike down part of the law, which it has signaled a willingness to do in the past, it would dramatically reduce the federal government’s role in overseeing voter discrimination in a wide swath of the nation. The U.S. Supreme Court prepares to enter June with the term’s biggest cases yet to be decided. NBC’s Pete Williams looks at what’s left on the docket. Signed by President Lyndon Johnson and renewed by Congress four times since then, most recently in 2006, a key provision requires states with a history of discrimination at the polls to get federal permission before making adjustments to their election procedures.
Montgomery was the final stop Wednesday on a bus tour of Alabama and Mississippi aimed at keeping the 1965 Voting Rights intact. The “Never Forget, Never Again” pilgrimage for voting rights came to the Alabama State House on Wednesday to raise awareness of a pending case before the U.S. Supreme Court that could allow some states to change voting laws.
On the 45th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s death, Attorney General Eric Holder challenged the Supreme Court to uphold a key section of the Voting Rights Act that requires all or part of 15 states with a history of discrimination to get federal clearance before carrying out changes in elections. Holder made the comments Thursday in a speech to a civil rights group whose founder and president is the Rev. Al Sharpton. Focusing on issues he regards as important during President Barack Obama’s second term in office, Holder vowed to protect the voting rights of all Americans, safeguard young people from gun violence and improve the criminal justice system. Opponents of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 say the pre-clearance requirement has outlived its usefulness. Starting in 2009, the Supreme Court made clear its skepticism about the present-day need for the provision. The court is considering a challenge on the issue from Shelby County, Ala., near Birmingham.
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.
Frank “Butch” Ellis Jr. was sitting in his law office a half-hour’s drive from Birmingham, Ala., about three years ago when Edward Blum, an investment banker turned conservative legal activist, called him to discuss the Voting Rights Act. Although the two had never met, they quickly bonded over a common grievance. Blum specifically wanted to discuss a provision in the landmark civil rights law requiring localities with a history of racial discrimination to obtain U.S. Justice Department permission to make any changes to their election procedures. Ellis, during nearly a half-century practicing law in Shelby County, had watched municipal clients jump through procedural hoops to gain “preclearance” from Washington lawyers. Moving a polling place could take months, for example, and require a voluminous paper trail. When Blum suggested that Shelby County officials, with Blum’s financial support, someday might challenge the provision in court, Ellis agreed. “We knew the only way to attack it was in the courts, in Washington,” Ellis explained recently. “We had the desire to do it, we just couldn’t spend our taxpayers’ money on it.”
A group of prominent black conservatives is trying to help scrap a key part of the Voting Rights Act, the landmark civil rights-era legislation that enshrined the right of black Americans to have equal treatment at the ballot box. The law was signed in 1965 by President Lyndon Johnson in the presence of civil rights leaders like Dr Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks, and it represented one of the milestone victories in ending the Jim Crow segregation of the deep south. Now, however, a black conservative group called Project 21 has filed a legal brief before the US supreme court in support of a case aimed at overturning key provisions of the act. The bid, on which the supreme court is set to rule this summer, has been brought by the authorities in Shelby County in the southern state of Alabama.
Alabama: 1965 Voting Rights Act: Alabama attorney general says theres no need for federal input: Arguments set for Feb. 27 in U.S. Supreme Court | The Montgomery Advertiser
Alabama’s practice of discriminating against minorities at the ballot box is a relic from a bygone era and the state no longer deserves to be punished for it, according to papers Alabama’s attorney general has filed with the Supreme Court. “Alabama has a new generation of leaders with no connection to the tragic events of 1965,” Attorney General Luther Strange wrote in a brief filed last week. “The effects of those events on voting and political representation have now, thankfully, faded away.”
The New Year is likely to amass a wave of issues that will affect Latinos including a pending case in the Supreme Court that revisits a key provision of the Voting Rights Act (VRA). In Shelby County vs. Holder, the Supreme Court justices will be deciding whether it makes sense to pursue section 5. The provision requires that lawmakers who want to enact changes to voting laws are obligated to seek permission from the federal government in states with a history of discrimination. Advocates argue that without this key provision, federal judges would not have been able to block voter ID laws in Texas and South Carolina. It also voided district maps in Texas and prevented early voting in parts of Florida. Yet, critics claim the provision is outdated.
While the United States was grappling with whether or not to re-elect its first African-American president, Louisiana was wrestling over whether to appoint its first African-American Chief Justice for its State Supreme Court. Bernette Johnson’s destiny was temporarily deferred when some of her fellow Supreme Court Justices and Gov. Bobby Jindal challenged her right to succeed retiring Chief Justice Catherine Kimball. Louisiana law dictates that the justice who’s served the longest on the bench takes over as chief when the sitting one leaves. Johnson, the court’s only black judge, took the bench in October of 1994, while Justice Jeffrey Victory came on in January 1995. But Victory declared he had seniority, arguing Johnson’s first few years on the bench didn’t count because it was a special appointment made by a federal consent decree. Indeed, Johnson’s Supreme Court seat was made available because the electoral districts at the time were drawn so that no black Louisianians would ever have the kind of plurality needed to elect a candidate who represented their interests. When you’re black and live in a Southern state that venerates its Confederate heritage while leading the world in locking people up, voting for a judge kinda matters to you.
When people talked during the presidential campaign about the potential impact of the election on the Supreme Court, most meant the impact on the court’s membership: whether Barack Obama or Mitt Romney would get to fill any vacancies during the next four years. The vote on Nov. 6 settled that question, obviously, but it also raised another tantalizing one: what impact will other developments during this election season, beyond the presidential vote itself, have on the nine justices? I have two developments in mind: the vote in four states in support of same-sex marriage, and the run-up to Election Day that saw both Democrats and federal judges pushing back against Republican strategies devised to selectively minimize voter turnout. Both are directly relevant to cases on the Supreme Court’s current docket, and it’s worth at least considering whether either or both are potential game changers. If so, it wouldn’t be the first time in Supreme Court history that timing turned out to be everything.
Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr. gave a lawyer’s answer when asked what would happen if the Tennessee Legislature might amend the state law requiring a photo voter ID in light of the Thursday, Oct. 25, Tennessee Court of Appeals ruling on the matter. The court upheld the law but also ruled that the city of Memphis photo library cards are a valid form of ID under that law. Wharton was specifically asked what the city’s reaction would be if legislators return to Nashville in January and amend the law to specifically prohibit photo library cards.
In The last Presidential election, 61% of eligible voters in Shelby County cast a ballot. In this past summer’s primary election saw a measly 17% voter turnout. Some states, like Oregon and Washington, have started mailing people ballots. Those two states have some of the highest turnout every election. The voter fills out the ballot and and puts it back in the mailbox, casting their ballot. “I am voting and I think it would be a lot more convenient for everybody if we could do that,” said Stephanie Helay. While Shelby County saw that seventeen percent turnout in August Washington state saw an average of thirty-eight percent voter turnout.
Civil rights attorney George Barrett Wednesday filed an appeal to the Tennessee Court of Appeals of a recent state court decision that found Tennessee’s voter identification law to be constitutional. His application for emergency appeal asks state officials to remove government-issued photo ID as voting requirement in the November election. The appeal requests a hearing no later than Oct. 12. Tennessee’s early voting starts Oct. 17. Barrett has been at war for months with state officials over the state’s voter ID law, which took effect this year. He has called the law “an unconstitutional impediment on the right to vote.”
The next big showdown over the constitutional powers of the federal government is nearly upon us. When the Supreme Court reconvenes in October, the Court is widely expected to grant review in Shelby County v Holder, a constitutional challenge to Congress’ 2006 renewal of the preclearance requirement of the Voting Rights Act, one of the Act’s most important and successful provisions in preventing and deterring racial discrimination in voting. Since it was first enacted in 1965, the Voting Right Act has required jurisdictions with a history of racial discrimination in voting to get permission – “preclearance” – from the U.S. Department of Justice or a three-judge federal court in Washington D.C. before changing their voting laws and regulations. Recent court opinions written by judges across the ideological spectrum illustrate just how vital preclearance remains as a tool for preventing racial discrimination in voting.
National: GOP Attorneys General Target Voting Rights Act, Ask Supreme Court To Strike Down Key Section | Huffington Post
Several Republican state attorneys general called a key provision of the Voting Rights Act unconstitutional and asked the Supreme Court to strike it down. The officials from Alabama, Arizona, Georgia, South Carolina, South Dakota and Texas submitted a brief in a closely watched Supreme Court case arguing that the law oversteps federal authority and places an unfair burden on certain states. The case at issue involves a plan to reshape a district in Shelby County, Ala., a largely white suburb of Birmingham. The new district maps led to the sole black council member in one of the county’s towns losing his seat. But the Justice Department blocked the certification of the voting results, and the town eventually redrew its districts. The black council member later re-won his seat.
Alaska sued the U.S. claiming the Voting Rights Act is unconstitutional because it creates “significant, ongoing administrative burdens” and isn’t warranted based on the state’s voting rights history. Alaska said the law’s preclearance requirement creates uncertainty and delay and “places Alaska’s elections at the mercy of Department of Justice attorneys,” according to a complaint filed today in federal court in Washington. The law intrudes on the state’s sovereignty without evidence Alaska discriminates against minority voters, the complaint alleges. “Section 5’s preclearance requirement denies Alaska the flexibility and autonomy necessary to run its elections in a manner that best accounts for local conditions and circumstances,” the state said in the lawsuit.
Tennessee: Shelby County election official responds to state’s questions about voting problems | The Commercial Appeal
The County Commission’s failure to develop its redistricting plan, the loss of critical local precinct-change data by the state, the massive complexities of redistricting overall, and a new staff without redistricting experience contributed to unprecedented local problems in the Aug. 2 elections, Shelby County’s chief election official reported Wednesday night. The County Commission’s redistricting plan was legally due last Dec. 31, but was never finalized. The Shelby Election Commission decided on June 14 that it “must proceed at a rapid pace to implement the redistricting at all levels” based on no county commission plan, but the next day a court ruling approved a plan — and that ruling was promptly appealed. That was only a month before the start of early voting. “I believed we could not act until the county commission enacted a redistricting plan,” Shelby Elections Administrator Richard Holden wrote. “Had they acted in compliance with state law, we would have implemented the plan we developed after the March election certification and the results would have been dramatically different.”
Tennessee: Election Commission could take ‘serious’ action in response to Shelby County’s voting problems | The Commercial Appeal
The Tennessee Election Commission could take “serious and substantial” action — possibly including ousting members of the Shelby County Election Commission — depending on the outcome of a review of the problems in the Aug. 2 election, a Memphis member of the state board said Monday. A performance audit of those problems by the state comptroller’s office is expected to begin as soon as this week, State Election Commission member Greg Duckett of Memphis said. The audit was requested July 26 by Tennessee Secretary of State Tre Hargett and State Election Coordinator Mark Goins, who both called the problems “unacceptable.” Election analyst Joe Weinberg of Germantown estimates that nearly 3,200 Shelby voters were given incorrect ballots, mostly for the new state legislative districts they were moved into during this year’s redistricting, during the Aug. 2 election, including its early voting period. That number included some voters in areas annexed by Collierville, who were not given ballots that included that city’s referendum on municipal schools. The votes cast in incorrect districts were not counted and voters had no chance under state law to cast correct ballots after they had already voted.