By Terry Baynes
Nov 9 The U.S. Supreme Court agreed on Friday to
review a legal challenge to the Voting Rights Act, a landmark
law adopted in 1965 to protect African-American voters who had
faced decades of discrimination at the polls.
The court's decision comes just days after a presidential
election in which Latino and African-American voters played a
big role in re-electing Democratic President Barack Obama,
reflecting a basic shift in national demographics.
The high court accepted an appeal brought by Shelby County,
Alabama, challenging a core provision of the act that requires
nine states and several local governments with a history of bias
to get federal permission to change their election procedures.
Arguments in the case will likely be heard by the Supreme
Court in early 2013, with a decision expected by the end of
Some justices on the nine-member court, including Chief
Justice John Roberts, have signaled in earlier cases discomfort
with policies that draw distinctions based on race.
In a 2009 Voting Rights Act case, the Supreme Court avoided
ruling on the law's constitutionality. The court suggested that
the federal "preclearance" requirement may no longer be needed
or constitutional. Roberts, dissenting from a 2006 voting-rights
decision, criticized what he called "a sordid business, this
divvying us up by race."
Congress passed the Voting Rights Act after a watershed
episode in Alabama on March 7, 1965, when state troopers clubbed
and tear-gassed peaceful civil rights marchers in Selma.
Now, officials from Shelby County, Alabama, are trying to
lift the screening requirement that today covers mainly southern
Edward Blum, director of the Project on Fair Representation,
which opposes race-based policies and spearheaded the suit,
welcomed the court's decision to take the case on Friday.
"The America that elected and reelected Barack Obama as its
first African-American president is far different than when the
Voting Rights Act was first enacted in 1965. Congress unwisely
reauthorized a bill that is stuck in a Jim Crow-era time warp,"
he said in a statement.
However, Civil rights advocates say that if Shelby County
succeeds in eliminating the federal screening requirement, that
would clear the way for states with a history of discrimination
to pass measures like voter identification laws that make it
harder for minorities to vote.
The NAACP Legal Defense Fund, in reaction to Friday's order,
warned of persisting threats to minority voter access and
"Given the extensive voter suppression we've seen around the
country, I think Section 5's relevance could not be clearer,"
said the group's litigation director, Elise Boddie.
SECTION 5 CHALLENGE
Shelby County sued in 2010, challenging Section 5 of the
law, which demands that places with a history of discrimination
obtain approval from the Justice Department or a special court
for new district lines, ballot rules or other election changes.
The federal screening aims to ensure that any proposed
changes do not impair voting rights based on race. It covers all
or part of 16 states, most of them in the South.
The suit contends that the preclearance requirement is a
federal encroachment on state sovereignty that is no longer
needed after more than 40 years of fighting racial
discrimination. A separate Voting Rights Act provision, not
challenged here, covers intentional discrimination at the polls.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia
Circuit upheld the federal preclearance requirement in a 2-1
decision in May, saying Congress had enough evidence of recent
racial discrimination to justify reauthorizing the law in 2006.
Racial discrimination in voting is "one of the gravest evils
that Congress can seek to redress," appeals court judge David
Tatel declared for the court majority.
While the appeals court noted the increasing number of
African Americans serving in elected office, it also pointed to
continued racial disparities in voter registration and turnout
in Virginia and South Carolina.
Shelby County is represented by Bert Rein, the same lawyer
who argued before the court in October against the University of
Texas' affirmative action policy favoring minority applicants.
"Things have changed in the South," Rein said in the
petition, quoting a 2009 Supreme Court decision. "Voter turnout
and registration rates now approach parity. Blatantly
discriminatory evasions of federal decrees are rare. And
minority candidates hold office at unprecedented levels."
In Shelby County's petition, Rein also argued that the
statute's coverage formula was based on data more than 35 years
old, and that discrimination no longer existed in the places
singled out for screening.
A Justice Department spokeswoman declined to comment on the
Supreme Court's decision to review the law.
Solicitor General Donald Verrilli had urged, in a brief for
the Justice Department, that the justices not take up the case.
He noted that Congress, before reauthorizing the law, had
documented extensive voter discrimination in the jurisdictions
covered. He said the Supreme Court had on multiple occasions
upheld Section 5 before Republican President George W. Bush
signed the reauthorization in 2006.
Seven of the states covered by the screening requirement
backed Shelby County in briefs filed with the court: Alabama,
Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, South Carolina, South Dakota and
Texas. Louisiana and Mississippi were not among them.
Mississippi joined a friend-of-the-court brief defending Section
5 before the court of appeals, saying the law has produced
measurable benefits for minority representation.
The Supreme Court did not take any action on a similar
challenge out of Kinston, North Carolina.
The case is Shelby County, Alabama, v. Holder, U.S. Supreme
Court, No. 12-96.