Court to Review Key Part of Voting Rights Act

This case is to be heard in the winter of 2013 or the spring of that year.   Given the voter suppression efforts in the recent Presidential election, in my opinion, the plaintiff’s justification and argument for the upcoming lawsuit should be rendered moot.

The Wall Street Journal

The Supreme Court said Friday it would review whether a core provision of the 1965 Voting Rights Act remains constitutional, signaling that the justices may be ready to end Washington’s aggressive supervision of locations that historically discriminated against minority voters.

The case comes from Shelby County, Ala., which maintains that the official racism that prompted the Voting Rights Act was eradicated long ago and can no longer justify what officials there consider intrusive federal oversight of local affairs.

Three years ago, the Supreme Court declined to invalidate the challenged provision, known as Section 5, which requires state and local governments with a history of voting discrimination to obtain approval from the Justice Department or a federal judge before changing election procedures. But the 8-1 decision, written by Chief Justice John Roberts, indicated that unless Congress amended Section 5 or found stronger ground to justify it, the provision might not survive future Supreme Court review.

The 2009 opinion, in the case of Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District No. 1 v. Holder, was widely viewed as a compromise between the court’s conservatives, who consider Section 5 an intrusion on state sovereignty, and its liberals, who credit the provision with ending widespread voter suppression.

A bipartisan vote had reauthorized Section 5 in 2006, but since then Congress has shown little interest in revisiting the legislation. Views of Section 5 now divide generally along party lines, with Democrats in support and Republicans critical.

After the 2009 decision, opponents of Section 5 wasted little time developing a follow-up lawsuit that sought to press the high court’s discomfort with the provision.

The 14th and 15th amendments, ratified soon after the Confederacy’s defeat in the Civil War, authorize Congress to protect individuals from mistreatment by state governments. The latter amendment specifically empowers Washington to prevent states from interfering with voting rights “on account of race, color or previous condition of servitude.”

Congress made little use of that authority until 1965, when police in Selma, Ala., attacked voting-rights marchers at the Edmund Pettus Bridge with billy clubs and tear gas. The incident, known as Bloody Sunday, shocked much of the nation and inspired Congress to pass the Voting Rights Act. Section 5 was designed to stymie state and local authorities that routinely devised new impediments to minority voters as soon as an existing one was challenged.

The provision aimed particularly at Southern states with long histories of disenfranchising African-Americans. In 1975, Congress expanded the criteria to include language minorities, a formula that has remained largely unchanged through successive reauthorizations, the last in 2006 for 25 years. The legislation permits jurisdictions with a clean record of at least 10 years to seek exemption from Section 5, and increasing numbers of local governments have obtained these so-called bailouts.

Shelby County and other critics argue that it and other covered jurisdictions have made extraordinary progress since the 1960s and ’70s, and that the blatant discrimination they once enforced is long past. Minorities vote in numbers comparable to whites, they argue, and African-Americans now occupy many elective offices—including Rep. John Lewis (D., Ga.), who was one of the nonviolent marchers beaten on Bloody Sunday.

Critics say the Justice Department has used its preclearance powers too aggressively, blocking, for instance, several voter-identification laws.

Lower courts, however, rejected Shelby County’s arguments, finding that Congress relied on a voluminous record of evidence in reauthorizing Section 5 powers. The Justice Department argues that while Congress may not have unlimited authority to intervene in state election laws, Section 5 falls well within its constitutional authority to protect the right to vote.

The case is likely to be heard in winter or spring, with a decision by July.