Challenge to the Voting Rights Act Reaches Supreme Court

PHOTO: Election Official Glenn Weideman, right, waits to collect a ballot from voters during early morning voting in the Wisconsin recall election at the Beloit Historical Society on June 5, 2012 in Beloit, Wisconsin.

The opposing sides in a landmark Supreme Court case concerning a key provision of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 have filed court briefs that suggest they see America through two different lenses.

At issue is a key provision of the law -- Section 5 -- that requires certain states and jurisdictions with a history of discrimination to have any changes in voting procedures precleared by either the attorney general or a three-judge Federal District Court in Washington, D.C.

On one side is the Department of Justice, which says that Section 5 is the "most consequential, and amply justified exercises of federal power in the nation's history." A brief filed by the NAACP Legal Defense Fund says that Section 5 is still necessary because "notwithstanding undeniable progress, striking voting discrimination continues and is concentrated in the covered jurisdictions."

On the other side are lawyers for Shelby County, Ala., a covered jurisdiction under the Voting Rights Act, who say that Congress was wrong in 2006 to extend the provision for 25 more years. They argue that "things have changed in the South" and that the mostly Southern states covered by Section 5 should no longer be subject to a law that exacts a "heavy, unprecedented federalism cost" absent a widespread and persisting pattern of constitutional violations.

Both sides meet Wednesday, when the Supreme Court takes up the issue.

Last December, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder made a speech in which he vigorously defended Section 5, calling it an "indispensable tool for eradicating racial discrimination." He noted that Congress reauthorized it in 2006, and that it has been upheld eight times from 1965 to 2012.

But Holder said that over the past two years there had been at least 10 lawsuits -- more than in the first four decades of the statute's existence -- arguing that it is no longer constitutional.

He said, "The reality is that, even today, too many citizens have reason to fear that their right to vote, their access to the ballot and their ability to have their votes counted is under threat."

The jurisdictions covered under the law include Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia, as well as portions of California, Florida, Michigan, New Hampshire, New York, North Carolina and South Dakota.

All sides agree on the importance of the Voting Rights Act that was passed after "Bloody Sunday" in 1965, when protesters urging voting rights protection were beaten while trying to march from Selma to Montgomery, Ala. The question before the court is whether Congress assembled an appropriate record in reauthorizing Section 5 for 25 more years.

In reauthorizing the act in 2006, Congress held 21 hearings, heard testimony from witnesses and amassed more than 15,000 pages of evidence. In a recent speech sponsored by the American Constitution Society, Rep. Mel Watt, D-N.C., who sits on the House Judiciary Committee, said it was a "comprehensive and deliberate process" culminating in an "overwhelmingly bipartisan vote." The vote was 98-0 in the Senate, and 390-33 in the House.

Solicitor General Donald B. Verrilli Jr. argues in briefs that "Congress made the considered judgment in 2006 (as it had in 1970, 1975 and 1982) that covered jurisdictions continue to resist minority voters' equal enjoyment of the right to participate in the political process."

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