Shut out in the Black Belt

VOX Sentences

President Obama really doesn’t want to give another speech after a mass shooting; a major Senate criminal-justice reform bill; and why DMV closures in Alabama could be a voter-suppression issue.

Obama speaks on the shooting

Mary Wilson/Getty Images


Voting booths. Booths, where voting happens.

Frederic J. Brown/AFP via Getty

Vox Sentences is written by Dylan Matthews and Dara Lind.

Alabama Is About To Make It Much Harder To Get A Voter ID



With Alabama’s Republican-controlled legislature refusing to consider any tax hikes, the state is preparing to take drastic measures to address its budget crisis — including shutting down all state parks and the vast majority of Departments of Motor Vehicles (DMVs). The proposal to close dozens of DMVs across the state — starting in rural areas — could hurt voters who need access to those offices in order to get the ID they need to cast a ballot.

Susan Watson, the executive director of the Alabama American Civil Liberties Union, told ThinkProgress this could put up yet another barrier to voting for the state’s lowest-income residents.

“They want to disenfranchise the most people possible,” she said. “It seems like they work hard to try to find ways to make it harder to vote. We have zero days of early voting. You aren’t allowed to vote absentee unless you’re out of the county or working more than 10 hours on Election Day. It’s already hard to get an ID if you are in a rural place and don’t have a DMV close to you. But if they shut these offices down, I’m wondering what people are supposed to do.”

The proposed budget leaves just four DMV offices in the state, in Birmingham, Montgomery, Mobile and Huntsville, meaning potentially several hours of driving and long lines for the tens of thousands of people who live far from those cities.

“This won’t just hurt voters,” said Watson. “I can see a lot more people getting arrested and fined for not having a current drivers license, since it’ll be harder for them to get one.”

Alabama implemented its voter ID law shortly after the Supreme Court struck down Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act, which required the state get preapproval from the Justice Department every time it changed its voting laws because of its long history of racially-based and often violent voter suppression. The ACLU and other voting rights groups argue the law disproportionately burdensthe elderly, people of color, students, and the poor — who may have difficulty finding transportation to an office during the narrow hours they are open, and who may lack a birth certificate or other document needed to get the free identification card.

The state itself estimated that 250,000 eligible voters lacked the proper ID, but gave out only about 1,000 as of last April.

In the 2014 midterm elections, hundreds of voters were disenfranchised by the ID requirement, and election turnout was the lowest it has been since the mid-1980s. As an example of the law’s harm, Watson cited the case of Willie Mims, a 93-year-old African American Alabama resident who was turned away from the polls last year because he didn’t have a proper ID. Mims had voted in nearly every election since World War II.

But Ed Packard, Alabama’s Director of Elections, defended the law, telling ThinkProgress that if the DMVs close, voters can still go to their Board of Registrar’s office in their county, or meet up with the mobile unit that travels around the state processing voter IDs. But he also admitted the Registrar offices have no evening or weekend hours, which presents difficulties for those with full-time jobs or multiple jobs. As for the mobile unit, it generally visits just one county per day and is open for just two hours at a time. Though Packard says his office plans to keep running the mobile unit through October, he told ThinkProgress that the future of the service is uncertain because of the current budget crisis.

As it becomes more difficult to get a voter ID, the state may demand more people obtain one. Alabama’s Secretary of State John Merrill told ThinkProgress earlier this year that he is pushing for the state to require a photo copy of an ID from those who vote absentee — who currently do not have to provide one. He added that Alabama residents should “forgive people” for past racial voter suppression policies and “move on.”

The state legislature will decide whether to go forward with the budget cuts and office closures during a special session in the coming weeks.


10 things you need to know today: March 9, 2015

The Week

1.Selma march over bridge marks Bloody Sundayanniversary
Thousands of demonstrators marched across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, on Sunday to mark the 50th anniversary of the brutal assault of civil rights activists in the same spot. Many sang “We Shall Overcome” at the scene of the 1965 clash, known as Bloody Sunday and commemorated in the film Selma. The attack helped galvanize support for the civil rights movement that led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act, which Attorney General Eric Holder, speaking in Selma, said was “under siege” by new state voting laws.

Source: Los Angeles Times, The New York Times

2.GOP Benghazi investigation chief finds gaps in Hillary Clinton’s emails
The Republican chairman of a House committee investigating the 2012 Benghazi attack said Sunday there were “huge gaps” in the emails then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton turned over to the committee. Clinton went to Libya after the attack, which left U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans dead. “We have no emails from that day,” said Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.). Clinton, under criticism for using a private email account instead of a government one, has asked the State Department to release all her emails.

Source: Reuters

3.Oklahoma fraternity closed over racist video
The national board of the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity shut down its University of Oklahoma chapter after a video surfaced allegedly showing SAE members from the school riding a bus, chanting that “there will never be a n—er in SAE.” The board made the decision “with no mental reservation whatsoever that this chapter needed to be closed immediately,” SAE national president Brad Cohen said after an emergency board meeting Sunday night. The reaction came after The Oklahoma Daily student newspaper posted the video online.

Source: The New York Times, The Oklahoma Daily

4.Obama says the U.S. would “walk away” from a bad Iran nuclear deal
President Obama on Sunday said Iran must agree to stringent conditions in a potential nuclear deal or the U.S. will “walk away” from the negotiating table. For a deal to work out, the U.S. would have to “verify that they are not going to obtain a nuclear weapon, that there’s a breakout period so that even if they cheated we would be able to have enough time to take action,” Obama said on Face the Nation. “If we don’t have that kind of deal, then we’re not going to take it,” he added.

Source: CBS News, Voice of America

5.Protests continue in Madison over police shooting
More than 100 people protested in Madison, Wisconsin, on Sunday in the third day of demonstrations over the fatal shooting of unarmed black teenager Tony Robinson Jr. by a white policeman. Robinson, 19, was shot outside an apartment building after Officer Matt Kenny, 45, responded to a report of a man dodging cars in traffic and battering another person. The killing was the latest in a series of deaths of unarmed black men that have touched off nationwide protests of excessive force against African Americans.

Source: Reuters

6.Iraq closes in on Islamic State in Tikrit
Iraqi forces have dealt severe blows to the Islamic State fighters near the city of Tikrit a week into an offensive aiming to regain control over the city from militants, officials said Sunday. Government forces and allied militias, however, had not yet been able to enter the city. “It will still take days to completely liberate” the areas, said Ahmed al-Karim, head of the provincial council in the area. “There is resistance from [the Islamic State], but it is not at the level we expected.”

Source: The Washington Post

7.Apple to debut Apple Watch
Apple is unveiling its long-awaited Apple Watch on Monday in San Francisco. The iPhone and iPad maker’s CEO, Tim Cook, said in September that the company’s new wearable gadget would have features that included fitness tracking, messaging, and Apple Pay. The Apple Watch is expected to start at $349, but fans are still wondering about other details such as battery life and apps. The Apple Watch is the company’s first new device since the death of the company’s visionary co-founder, Steve Jobs.

Source: NBC Bay Area

8.Cosmos exhibition game to end Cuba sports embargo
The New York Cosmos will play the Cuban national soccer team in Havana this June in an exhibition match, ending a professional sports ban on the communist Caribbean island. The Cosmos will travel to Cuba during a break in their North American Soccer League schedule. The match will be the first pro sports exchange since the U.S. and Cuba announced renewed diplomatic relations in December. The last pro team to play in Cuba was the Baltimore Orioles, who beat Cuba’s national baseball team 3-2 in 1999.

Source: The New York Times

9. Report says cycling officials went easy on Lance Armstrong
Cycling’s international governing body gave Lance Armstrong special treatment and delayed addressing rumors that the now-disgraced former Tour de France champion had been doping, according to a new report by the Cycling Independent Reform Commission. The report says officials at the International Cycling Union (UCI) “exempted Lance Armstrong from rules, failed to test him despite the suspicions, and publicly supported him against allegations of doping, even as late as 2012.” The UCI set up the commission to investigate the causes of the sport’s doping scandal.

Source: CNN

10.Solar plane starts historic flight
A solar-powered plane with a 236-foot wingspan took off from Abu Dhabi on Monday, with the goal of becoming the first plane to travel around the world without any fuel. The Solar Impulse 2 will be piloted by André Borschberg and Bertrand Piccard, who will alternate flying the single-seat aircraft. The journey is expected to take several months, and the pilots hope the plane will make it back to Abu Dhabi by late July or August. The first stop is Muscat, Oman, where Borschberg is expected to land late Monday.

Source: The Associated Press

Alabama Marriage Mess Shows Dangers of Distorted ‘Religious Liberty’ Claims

The Huffington Post

Across Alabama, local judges are openly defying a federal judicial order to grant marriage licenses to same-sex couples. The New York Times reported yesterday that 44 of the state’s 67 counties were not granting licenses. The state is a checkerboard where gay and lesbian Alabamans are locked out of full citizenship across vast swaths of the state based on the whims of local officials.

As many observers have pointed out, this week’s events make Americans recall the state’s historic resistance to federal court orders striking down segregation. But they show us an image of the future, as well — or at least the future as the far right would have it.

Emboldened by the Supreme Court’s distortion of religious liberty in the Hobby Lobby case, some state legislatures are considering bills that would allow government officials to decline to perform marriages that offend them religiously. A number of states are also considering legislation to let people exempt themselves from anti-discrimination and other laws if compliance would offend them religiously. While misleadingly framed as protecting religious liberty, these bills are really intended to allow discrimination and to let conservatives impose their religious beliefs on others.

So what would America look like if we allowed such massive holes to be poked in laws that are supposed to protect everyone? What if lesbian and gay couples were legally treated as outsiders in their home communities, had fewer legal rights than anyone else in those communities, and had to travel anywhere from another neighborhood to another county to find a bakery willing to make a cake for them, a hotel willing to rent them a room for the night, or an employer willing to grant them spousal employment benefits? What if a woman’s ability to find adequate healthcare depended on finding an employer and a pharmacist with compatible religious beliefs? What if people’s basic rights varied depending on where they were, and upon the prevailing religious beliefs of people in the area? What would such a religiously balkanized nation look like?

It would look a lot like Alabama does today. And it would be ugly.

For decades, the far right has fought tooth and nail to impose their religious beliefs through government fiat. They have fought to prevent gays from marrying, to prevent women from exercising reproductive choice, to have public schools indoctrinate other people’s children with their own religious beliefs — the list goes on. And when they fail at changing the laws to match their religion, they seek exemptions from those laws in the name of “religious liberty.”

As People For the American Way Senior Fellow Peter Montgomery has written in his most recent report, that isn’t what religious liberty is about. And it isn’t a vision of America that is true to our founding principles.

Alabama Lawmaker: Proposed 10 Commandments Monument Has ‘Nothing To Do With Religion’

Texas Legislature | CREDIT: AP

What color is the sky on these folks’ planet? They’re not possibly from this planet.

Think Progress

Alabama lawmaker announced Thursday his desire to erect a monument to the Ten Commandments at a county courthouse, arguing that the religious moral code deserves a memorial for “historical” reasons and that the proposal “has nothing to do with religion.”

Tim Guffey, a Republican county commissioner in Jackson county, Alabama, told that he would like to create a monument to “historical documents” at a courthouse in downtown Scottsboro. The hypothetical monument would feature the Bible’s Ten Commandments beside reconstructions of the U.S. Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.

“What I’m trying to do is erect a monument of historical documents,” Guffey told “It’s the Constitution, the Ten Commandments and the Declaration of Independence. I feel like that’s what this country was founded on. These documents helped America become the greatest country in history.”

Guffey did not elaborate as to why the suggested monument wouldn’t include other famous historical legal codes, such as the Code of Hammurabi, the English Magna Carta, the Iroquois Great Law of Peace, or even the U.S. Bill of Rights, all of which have been cited by scholars,U.S. Congress, and even U.S. Presidents as deeply influential to the creation of America’s justice system. Instead, Guffey argued that the Ten Commandments were uniquely important to the construction of the U.S. Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.

“The Ten Commandments is a historical document (in this context) and it has nothing to do with religion,” he said. “It shows that these founders had great beliefs in God and the Ten Commandments and His Word and it helped them get to the point where they were. And I feel like taking that document out, if that document wasn’t there to guide them, then our Constitution wouldn’t be what it is today…But I don’t see how I could do the other two and not do that one and be truthful about it.”

Conservatives have long contended that the legal perspective of America’s Founding Fathers was almost exclusively grounded in Christianity, often arguing that the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence are supposedly inherently “Christian” documents (this despite the fact that Thomas Jefferson, the chief author of the Declaration of Independence, hadcomplex and often deeply ambivalent views on the Bible and religion). But Guffey’s insistence that the Ten Commandments be respected as a historically influential code appears to be part of a new trend among conservatives to appeal to history when introducing explicitly Christian symbols into public spaces. Steve Green, the president of Hobby Lobby, recently developed a four-year curriculum for public high schools that casts the Bible as, among other things, a book that shaped America’s legal framework — including the Declaration of Independence. The curriculum, which has already been approved by an Oklahoma school board, would ostensibly be taught from a secular perspective, but Green said in a April 2013 speech that he hopes the course will teach students that the Bible’s impact, “whether (upon) our government, education, science, art, literature, family … has been good.”

Guffey expressed a similar belief when explaining the rationale behind his potential monument, telling, “They don’t teach this at school anymore.”

Alabama has a long history of debates over whether or not to display the list of laws said to be handed down by God to Moses in the biblical Exodus story. In 2001, Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore erected a Ten Commandments monument in the lobby of the Alabama Judicial Building, a move that ultimately resulted in his removal from office. In addition, members of the Alabama legislature have debated a number of bills in recent years to amend the state’s Constitution and allow for the display of the Ten Commandments on public property. The most recent “Ten Commandments Bill” was introduced in February,passing through the state House of Representatives before halting in the Senate. Lawmakers supported the bill reportedly defended it using a number of bizarre arguments, such as blaming school shootings, patricide, and matricide on society’s failure to display the Ten Commandments in schools and other government buildings.


An earlier version of this piece denoted Thomas Jefferson as the chief author of the U.S. Constitution. Although Jefferson’s ideas undoubtedly influenced the construction of the Constitution, he was actually abroad during the Constitutional Convention, and is more accurately remembered as the architect of the Declaration of Independence.


Saturday Blog Roundup 11-30-2013

Black Friday Questions.

Church Of England Proposes Gay Marriage ‘Blessings’

Mitt Romney’s Son Helped Rescue Four People After Car Crash

After years on the sidelines, New York’s liberals retaking control

Obama to issue a new statement of U.S. national security strategy

Syrian chemical arms ‘to be destroyed on US Navy ship’ – BBC News

Dems should not hesitate to further streamline the Senate rulebook

President Obama Visits Immigration Advocates Fasting For Reform

Conservatives live in a different reality from us, ‘history book’ edition

Former KKK Leader And His Mother Indicted After Alabama Cross Burning


10 things you need to know today: November 22, 2013

The JFK memorial in Dallas. 

The JFK memorial in Dallas. (Tom Pennington/Getty Images)

The Week

Democrats nuke the filibuster, Dallas honors JFK on the 50th anniversary of his assassination, and more

1. Frustrated Democrats limit the use of the filibuster
Senate Democrats went nuclear on Thursday, pushing through a landmark rule change preventing the Republican minority from filibustering most presidential nominees. The move, long threatened by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, should break a GOP blockade against President Obama’s cabinet and judicial nominees. Furious Republicans called it a power grab, suggesting the move would further polarize an already sharply divided Congress. [New York TimesUSA Today]

2. Dallas honors JFK on the 50th anniversary of his death
Dallas is marking the 50th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination on Friday with a ceremony in Dealey Plaza, where he was shot. In past years, conspiracy theoristsunconvinced that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone have flocked to the plaza on the anniversary. Mayor Mike Rawlings said this year’s events will honor JFK’s life and legacy with “the sense of dignity and history he deserves.” [Star-TelegramReuters]

3. Jury says Samsung owes Apple $290 million in damages
A California jury on Thursday ruled that Samsung must pay Apple nearly $290 million more for violating the rival smartphone maker’s patents. A jury last year had said Samsung should pay $1 billion in damages, but a judge reduced the amount by $450 million, leaving Samsung to pay $600 million. The latest decision determined how much more Samsung would have to pay to close this chapter in the rivals’ ongoing legal saga. [New York Times]

4. Yellen takes another step toward confirmation as Fed chair
The Senate Banking Committee on Thursday approved President Obama’s nomination of Janet Yellen to be the next Federal Reserve chairman. The 14-8 vote virtually assured Yellen’s confirmation, as the Senate’s Democratic majority supports Yellen, currently the Fed’s vice chair, as do several influential Republicans. Democrats also revised Senate rules Thursday to prevent the GOP minority from blocking confirmation votes by filibuster. [Wall Street Journal]

5. Skakel gets out on bond
Kennedy cousin Michael Skakel was released on $1.2 million bond on Thursday, weeks after a Connecticut judge vacated his conviction for the 1975 murder of a 15-year-old neighbor, Martha Moxley. The judge ruled Skakel did not get adequate representation in his 2002 trial. Skakel didn’t comment as he left the courthouse. Skakel’s family said his release while he awaits a new trial was a “first step in correcting a terrible wrong.” [CNN]

6. The last three Scottsboro Boys are posthumously pardoned
Alabama’s Board of Pardons and Paroles on Thursday posthumously pardoned three of the Scottsboro Boys, nine black teenagers wrongfully accused of gang-raping two white women aboard a train in 1931. Charles Weems, Andy Wright, and Haywood Patterson were the last of the nine whose names hadn’t been cleared. Their convictions, by all-white juries, sparked protests and helped inspire the civil rights movement. [Reuters]

7. FCC proposes allowing travelers to use cellphones on airliners
The Federal Communications Commission is proposing letting airline passengers on specially equipped flights make cellphone calls at altitudes of 10,000 feet or higher. The Association of Flight Attendants argued that letting passengers talk away on their phones in flight could undermine safety. Tom Wheeler, the FCC’s new chairman, said Thursday that the rules against cellphones were “outdated and restrictive,” and should be reviewed. [Associated Press]

8. London police free three women held captive for decades
British police announced Thursday that they had rescued three women held captive in a London home for as many as 30 years. A man and a woman, both age 67, were arrested as part of a slavery investigation. The London Metropolitan Police said in a statement that officers began investigating the case after the Freedom Charity reported getting a call from one of the women who said she was being held against her will. [Reuters]

9. Latvian mall collapses, killing 33
The death toll from Thursday’s collapse of a shopping mall roof in Latvia’s capital has risen to at least 33, emergency workers said Friday. It was the Baltic state’s deadliest accident, at least since it won independence from the former Soviet Union in 1991. Rescuers said 35 survivors were injured in the Thursday collapse at the Maxima shopping mall in Riga. Three firefighters were among the dead. [CNN]

10. Eager gamers line up to buy Microsoft’s new Xbox One
Video game fanatics lined up for hours to buy Microsoft’s Xbox One when it went on sale at 12:01 a.m. Friday. It is Microsoft’s first new game console since the launch of the Xbox 360 in 2005. The debut came one week after rival Sony introduced its PlayStation 4. The PS4 is aimed more at hard-core gamers, while Xbox One is intended for a wider audience looking for an all-in-one entertainment center. [USA Today]

Nutty New NRA president Jim Porter still fighting war against ‘Northern Aggression’

JIm Porter, who was named NRA President on March 2, 2013, spoke at The New York State Rifle & Pistol Association Annual Meeting hosted by the Wallkill Rod and Gun Club on June 9, 2012 when he was the NRA Vice-President.

Did someone forget to tell the old fella that the Civil War ended in 1865?

Daily News

An Alabama lawyer, Porter calls U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder ‘un-American’ and intends to fight in court to repeal tough new gun-control laws passed after Newtown.

The new president of the NRA is a good ol’ Southern boy, who sounds even crazier than the group’s gun-nut mouthpiece Wayne LaPierre.

Alabama lawyer Jim Porter has called U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder “rabidly un-American” and proudly spews the Confederate line on the Civil War.

In a June speech, Porter noted the NRA was “started by some Yankee generals who didn’t like the way my Southern boys had the ability to shoot in what we call the ‘War of Northern Aggression.’ ”

“Now y’all might call it the Civil War, but we call it the ‘War of Northern Aggression’ down South,” Porter said to the New York State Rifle & Pistol Association.

He also advocates training all U.S. civilians to use standard military firearms so “they’re ready to fight tyranny.”

“Every time you take your nephew out to the gun club, every time you take your daughter skeet shooting, every time you take your grandchildren out, we’re passing on the legacy of freedom,” Porter said in the June speech.

Jim Porter says the NRA was ‘started by some Yankee generals who didn’t like the way my Southern boys had the ability to shoot in what we call the ‘War of Northern Aggression.’

He went on to say that fighting for the Second Amendment was “vital to the very fabric of this country.”

“We got the pads put on, we got our helmets strapped on, we’re cinched up, we’re ready to fight, we’re out there fighting every day,” he said to loud applause.

Nearly a year later, Porter — currently vice president of the NRA and chairman of its Legal Affairs Committee — is bent on overturning recently tightened gun laws that states, including New York, adopted after the Newtown massacre.

“At this stage in the NRA’s history, Jim Porter will be the perfect match for president,” said outgoing President David Keene.

“We will have to move to courts to undo the restrictions placed on gun owners’ rights in New York, Connecticut, Maryland and Colorado,” Keene told The Washington Times.

Porter, son of former National Rifle Association President Irvine Porter, will be in Houston on Friday to kick off the organization’s national convention.

On the eve of the three-day event, the country’s latest shooting in a public place occurred just a few miles from where the group is meeting.

Cops said a man opened fire inside Houston’s Bush International Airport on Wednesday afternoon and died in a confrontation with law enforcement officials. Police believe the man shot himself.

Porter, a former Alabama assistant attorney general, is set to begin his two-year term on Monday.

“I am honored to be able to continue their work to ensure that the inalienable rights to keep and bear firearms for the defense of one’s country, family and self is protected for future generations,” he said in a statement.

NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre will remain the public face of the group.

The outspoken LaPierre has bashed all government efforts to curb gun violence through legislation.

Following the Dec. 14 mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, LaPierre proposed putting armed guards in every school in America.

“The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun,” he said.

VP Joe Biden and AG Eric Holder in Selma today for “Bloody Sunday” commemoration


Police ready Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge for the Sunday, March 3, 2013, commemoration of Bloody Sunday. (Vasha Hunt/

SELMA, Alabama — Vice President Joe Biden is in Selma this morning for the anniversary of Bloody Sunday, the violent 1965 clash between law enforcement and protesters on the Edmund Pettus Bridge during a march for voting rights.

Images of the clash in which officers wielded billy clubs and tear gas against protesters helped galvanize support for passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Biden will speak at noon at the Unity Day Brunch. He will then join a crowd expected to numbers in the thousands as the group makes the annual symbolic crossing across the bridge.

Biden’s visit comes four days after the United States Supreme Court heard oral arguments challenging Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act which requires states with a history of discrimination to get Justice Department approval before making any change to election procedure. The case is out of Alabama’s Shelby County. Shelby County argued the South and Shelby County has changed and the oversight is no longer needed.

On March 7, 1965 marchers made it just a few blocks from the churches where they had assembled. When they reached Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge, they were attacked by state troopers and Dallas County deputies, some on horseback wielding billy clubs and firing canisters of tear gas into the marchers.

The attack was broadcast on national news programs and reported in newspapers throughout the country.

Eight days later, President Lyndon Johnson called a joint session of the Congress where he proposed the landmark 1965 Voting Rights Act. Later that year, 100 years after the end of the Civil War, African-Americans were guaranteed the right to vote.

Sotomayor Leads Liberal Justices In Defending The Voting Rights Act

Supreme Court justice Sonia Sotomayor is acknowledged by President Barack Obama at the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute’s 34th Annual Awards Gala at the Washington Convention Center, Wednesday, Sept. 14, 2011 in Washington. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

Supreme Court justice Sonia Sotomayor is acknowledged by President Barack Obama at the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute’s 34th Annual Awards Gala at the Washington Convention Center, Wednesday, Sept. 14, 2011 in Washington. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)


Seemingly aware that they were outnumbered and fighting an uphill battle, the four liberal justices on the Supreme Court defended the Voting Rights Act during Supreme Court oral arguments Wednesday with a mix of sharp questions, appeals to history, and indirect rejoinders to the more conservative justices.

All four of them participated actively in oral arguments. None was more emphatic than Justice Sonia Sotomayor.

The Obama-appointed justice asked the first question of the day. She hammered Burt Rein, the lawyer representing the challengers, Shelby County of Alabama, over its record of discrimination. The county contends that Section 5 is unfair to its residents and other jurisdictions that it requires to obtain federal pre-clearance before changing their voting laws.

“Assuming I accept your premise, and there’s some question about that, that some portions of the South have changed, your county pretty much hasn’t,” Sotomayor said of Shelby County, which is 90 percent white. “In the period we’re talking about, it has many more discriminating -­- 240 discriminatory voting laws that were blocked by Section 5 objections. … You may be the wrong party bringing this.”

“Why would we vote in favor of a county whose record is the epitome of what caused the passage of this law to start with?” she asked, wondering why the Court should invalidate Section 5 if, as she argued, any formula would cover Shelby County. “Discrimination is discrimination.”

While Section 5 was taking a beating at the hands of the conservative justices, the four liberal-leaning justices targeted various audiences. Sometimes they played to each other, sometimes to the conservative justices they hoped to sway, sometimes to the future Court, sometimes to the public audience.

Justice Stephen Breyer several times tried to needle the lawyers defending the Voting Rights Act into addressing conservatives’ concerns. Other times, he did so himself.

“The disease is still there in the state,” he said. “Of course this is aimed at states. What do you think the Civil War was about? Of course it was aimed at treating some states differently than others.”

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg took the liberty of knocking down what she viewed as a straw man argument by attorney Rein.

“Mr. Rein, you keep emphasizing over and over again in your brief registration and you said it a couple of times this morning,” she said. “Congress was well aware that registration was no longer the problem. This legislative record is replete with what they call second generation devices. Congress said up front: We know that the registration is fine. That is no longer the problem. But the discrimination continues in other forms.”

Justice Elena Kagan twice said the Section 5 coverage formula has been working “pretty well” when it comes to snuffing out voter discrimination where it’s most likely to emanate. When Rein argued that it’s the courts, not Congress, who should determine whether the coverage formula is legitimate, she sounded shocked.

“That’s a big new power you’re giving us,” Kagan said, “that we have the power to determine when racial discrimination has ended. I did not think we had that power.”

In the final moments of the argument, Sotomayor, apparently taken aback by Justice Antonin Scalia’s statement that Section 5 is a “perpetuation of racial entitlement,” put the question to Shelby County’s lawyer.

“Do you think that the right to vote is a racial entitlement in Section 5?” she asked Rein. When he dodged, she asked him again: “I asked a different question. Do you think Section 5 was voted for because it was a racial entitlement?” He dodged again.