Supreme Court to weigh ongoing validity of voting rights law

WASHINGTON Tue Feb 26, 2013 7:14pm EST

A voter gives a thumb's up after voting at the Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School in the Anacostia neighborhood of Washington, in this file photo taken November 4, 2008. REUTERS/Larry Downing

A voter gives a thumb's up after voting at the Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School in the Anacostia neighborhood of Washington, in this file photo taken November 4, 2008.

Credit: Reuters/Larry Downing

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - 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.

STATES RIGHTS

Although the Voting Rights Act was originally passed in 1965 at the height of the U.S. civil rights movement, the precise question before the justices concerns the version that Congress reauthorized in 2006.

Congress concluded then that the part of the law that is disputed, known as the "preclearance provision," requires nine designated states (and parts of seven others) to seek federal approval before making any election-law changes, such as for voter-identification rules or in district boundaries.

The states that are fully covered are Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia.

Those states split on whether the provision undercuts their sovereignty in an unacceptable way, although most think it does. Alabama, South Carolina, Arizona, Georgia, Alaska and Texas all want the court to strike down the provision.

Mississippi is the only one to have filed a brief in support of the law, although both Virginia and Louisiana have opted to remain silent.

The Supreme Court tackled the constitutionality of Section 5 four years ago in a case out of Texas. The court avoided the major issue and decided the case on narrow grounds, but it was clear from the majority opinion that the issue was likely to make a return to the high court.

Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in the opinion that he, for one, had doubts about the provision's long-term future.

"Things have changed in the South," he said. Voter turnout and registration rates in both covered and uncovered states are roughly the same, he noted, and "blatantly discriminatory evasions of federal decrees are rare."

For interested observers, like Elizabeth Wydra, an attorney with the progressive Constitutional Accountability Center who filed a brief in support of the provision, Roberts' comments were particularly striking.

"Given the skepticism that Roberts expressed, he certainly is one to watch in terms of striking down the preclearance provision," she said.

With Justice Anthony Kennedy, the court's most regular swing vote, having also stated some concerns during the argument in the 2009 case, lawyers on both sides will also be keeping a close eye on him, Wydra added.

(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Howard Goller and Lisa Shumaker)

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Comments (7)
JamesChirico wrote:
Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in the opinion that he, for one, had doubts about the provision’s long-term future.
“Things have changed in the South,” he said. Voter turnout and registration rates in both covered and uncovered states are roughly the same, he noted, and “blatantly discriminatory evasions of federal decrees are rare.”

This is not only poorly thought out, it is a lie. In the 2008 presidential election CA had 57% of Latinos voting, TX had 38%. In 2010 TX Latinos 37% of the population voted in the teens while white voters elected Republicans in Harris Country that is 2/3 Latino.

GOP governors wrote extra ID requirements, cut back on early voting days making sure the Sunday before elections had pools closed to stop black church traditional voting. In FL Broward county had far fewer machines per capita than most white districts with waits of up to 7 hours to vote. Recent moves by GOP statehouses to disenfranchise urban voters changing the way electoral college votes are allotted has happened in many states. Gerrymandering by GOP statehouses makes sure the white rural population has a larger clout in electing numbers of reps than urban districts. Whether defined as “blatant” or not, voter discrimination should not be tolerated in any way shape or form in a country with a 14th amendment.

Feb 27, 2013 6:47am EST  --  Report as abuse
Wolfgang985 wrote:
@JamesChirico

I fail to see any reasonable explanation in your post regarding this biased law being struck down. The fact of the matter is that it has no influence, what-so-ever, upon voter discrimination in Southern states. It is fairly easy to determine this by just looking at the information you have provided in your comment.

If you think this doesn’t go on elsewhere in the country, you are sadly mistaken. I really can’t disagree with it, either. Why would you want a district full of welfare leeches and low income individuals to have a strong opinion on who is elected? That is completely ridiculous. If you take more than you contribute to society, then your opinion is irrelevant.

Leave the politics to the people who actually have something to lose or gain from it. After all, these “minorities” will still have welfare at the end of the day.

Feb 27, 2013 9:36am EST  --  Report as abuse
JamesChirico wrote:
Nonsense, it stopped FL and other states from disenfranchising voters. I agree it should be in all 50 states, equal protection under the law. Discrimination of anyone anywhere in this country should not be tolerated in the law. Sadly we needed the Civil Rights, Voting Rights, Ledbetter and Sheppard Acts to protect us against discrimination. Our courts also have taken the same view with separate not being equal and the Voting Rights Act nullification of GOP disenfranchisement policies.

Feb 27, 2013 11:08am EST  --  Report as abuse
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