Conservative Group Takes Up Chief Justice Roberts Hint and Challenges Voter Rights Act.
Feb. 3, 2011
Conservative activists are trying to overturn the landmark Voting Rights Act, beginning with arguments they made this week in a federal court in Washington, D.C.
They say the reasoning behind the 1965 law is outdated.
The law requires states and cities to seek Justice Department approval for changes they make to their voting procedures.
Congress designed the law to prevent local authorities from shutting minorities out of their right to vote.
Some jurisdictions in Southern states used to redistrict to ensure African Americans could not dominate the vote in any voting district. Others required literacy tests that disproportionately excluded African Americans.
The lawsuit that prompted the hearing Wednesday was filed by officials from Shelby County, Ala.
Their attorneys presented their arguments in U.S. District Court, only a half-mile from the U.S. Supreme Court.
Any efforts to overturn the Voting Rights Act is nearly certain to end up back in the Supreme Court before all the appeals are completed, according to legal analysts.
The dispute centers on Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, which requires federal “pre-clearance” to redistrict voting districts or make other changes to election laws in nine Southern states and parts of seven others.
The Supreme Court has consistently upheld the law since 1965.
However, Chief Justice John G. Roberts hinted in 2009 that the law might be ripe for a different ruling.
“Things have changed in the South,” Roberts wrote for the majority in a decision that upheld the law but signaled that portions of it were outdated.
Attorneys for Shelby County echoed similar reasoning in their court filings when they said the law should change with the times.
“There can be no question that the [Voting Rights Act] ushered in long-overdue changes in electoral opportunities for minorities throughout the Deep South,” the attorneys wrote in their lawsuit.
However, “it is no longer constitutionally justifiable for Congress to arbitrarily impose on Shelby County and other covered jurisdictions disfavored treatment . . . without a legislative record showing that [they] are still engaged in the type of ‘unremitting and ingenious defiance of the Constitution’ that justified enactment of the [Voting Rights Act] in 1965.”
The Justice Department, joined by the NAACP, responded by saying 420 proposed changes to local election laws in the Deep South since 1982 appeared to be “intentionally discriminatory.”
The changes were blocked under the Justice Department’s pre-clearance authority.
“Congress’ considered judgment that racial and language minorities remained politically vulnerable . . . is not only amply supported by the legislative history but is entitled to deference by the courts,” the Justice Department attorneys wrote in arguing the case should be dismissed.