Racial justice

  • September 17, 2015
    Guest Post

    by Atiba R. Ellis, Professor of Law, West Virginia University College of Law; Follow Prof. Ellis on Twitter @atibaellis

    *This post is part of ACSblog’s 2015 Constitution Day Symposium.

    On this Constitution Day, I have been drawn to thinking about violence against minorities in America and how our constitutional system fails to address this violence. We have seen numerous episodes of individual and community violence against neighborhoods of color from Ferguson to Baltimore. We are familiar with the long list of individuals who have died at the hands of the police under questionable grounds.  (I discussed both here previously.) This violence is so engrained and pervasive that it is systemic. In the words of a famous scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, it is “violence inherent in the system.” 

    Yet this physical violence is but one manifestation of the long history of subordination of communities of color. This violence of white supremacy is also made manifest in the expressive violence of exclusion from the political process, as it dilutes and diminishes both minority individual and community political strength. And our constitutional mechanisms are not fully addressing it.

    Communities of color have been victims of this violence -- whether state-imposed or state-abetted -- for generations. This violence has taken various forms: slavery, Jim Crow, police brutality, and mass incarceration. That violence attacked their bodies, their property, and their status as members of the American democratic community.

    The ways that our constitutional system allows violence against vulnerable minorities represents an existential attack against minority communities and a continuation of the patterns of white supremacy (even if the intent of racial discrimination is absent).  This isn’t to say that the crises linked to the policing of minority communities, including police brutality and killings; racial profiling; mass incarceration; and racial disparities in the death penalty shouldn’t be thought of as less important—they are important and pervasive.  Yet these species of state-sanctioned violence are connected to the political exclusion that minorities suffer, and they are better seen as parts of a whole.

  • August 27, 2015
    Guest Post

    by Jennifer Taylor, staff attorney, Equal Justice Initiative

    Racial discrimination in jury selection is a feature of American criminal justice with a deep-rooted history and persistent life span. Last week, The New York Times explored the practice’s contemporary legacies and the law’s apparent inability to eradicate it once and for all.

    Before ratification of the Reconstruction Amendments that followed the end of the Civil War in 1865, black Americans were not legally considered American citizens and were routinely barred from serving on juries or testifying in court in many communities throughout the country – including in the South where the vast majority of them had been enslaved. After the grant of emancipation, citizenship, and legal rights, outright prohibitions on jury service evolved into thinly veiled qualification requirements that left selection up to the discretion of white officials or so-called random selection processes that enabled race-based exclusion. In practice, the result was the same: no black jurors allowed.

    More than a century later, after legal victories and social movements, the problem remains most prominent today where it was most prominent then: the American South. Adam Liptak’s article highlights a recent report finding that in Caddo Parish, Louisiana, prosecutors are three times as likely to strike a black person from jury service as a white juror. The Equal Justice Initiative reported similarly disturbing results in its own study of prosecutors’ strikes in Houston County, Alabama, in 2011 and filed suit on behalf of those jurors. The problem is not getting better.

    Importantly, discriminatory jury selection implicates not just the rights of the defendant facing trial, but also those of the excluded juror – black Americans who have the constitutional right to participate in the trial process but little recourse when that right is infringed upon. Recalling the experience of walking past a towering Confederate memorial to enter the Caddo Parish courthouse, 63-year-old Carl Stokes, a black man excluded from service on a death penalty case there in 2009, expressed dismay. “It dashes your hopes,” he told The New York Times. “It has its roots in the ideology of white supremacy.”

  • August 14, 2015
    Guest Post

    by Franita Tolson, the Betty T. Ferguson Professor of Voting Rights, Florida State University College of Law.

    *This post is part of ACSblog’s symposium regarding the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

    The fiftieth anniversary of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 provides an opportunity to reflect, not only on its marveled history, but also on the next frontier of voting rights litigation and policy. The Act has faced unprecedented challenges in recent years, culminating in the 2013 U.S. Supreme Court decision of Shelby County v. Holder. In Shelby County, the Court invalidated the coverage formula of section 4(b) of the Voting Rights Act.  The coverage formula required certain jurisdictions, mostly in the south, to preclear all changes to their electoral laws with the federal government under section 5 of the Act.  The Court found that the formula unduly infringed on the states’ sovereign authority over elections because Congress had not updated the formula in over forty years, and racial discrimination in voting had substantially decreased over this time period. 

    Contrary to the Court’s assertions of post-racialism, the years since Shelby County have welcomed a considerable increase in the number of restrictions designed to undermine the right to vote. According to the Brennan Center, states have introduced 113 bills this year alone that limit access to registration and voting. There also has been litigation challenging voting restrictions in North Carolina and Texas, which enacted very restrictive voting laws immediately following the Shelby County decision.  Unsurprisingly, both the U.S. Department of Justice and private litigants have turned to section 2 of the Voting Rights Act to challenge these provisions after the Supreme Court crippled the preclearance regime of sections 4(b) and 5. Section 2 of the Act forbids any “standard, practice, or procedure” that “results in a denial or abridgment of the right of any citizen of the United States to vote on account of race or color.”  Unlike the preclearance regime, section 2 applies nationwide and allows plaintiffs to challenge a law after it goes into effect.

    The strategic decision by the Justice Department and private litigants to use section 2 to fill the gap left in the Voting Rights Act post-Shelby County has brought renewed attention to section 2’s constitutionality.  The Supreme Court has never directly addressed this issue, and critics argue that section 2 raises many of the same federalism concerns as the recently invalidated coverage formula.  Texas, in the current litigation over its voter identification law, explicitly argued that it is unconstitutional to apply section 2 to address the racially discriminatory effects of its voter identification law absent a showing that the law is intentionally discriminatory. So far, courts have been unresponsive to this type of argument, but very few courts have confronted the issue in the post-Shelby County world. 

  • August 7, 2015
    Guest Post

    by Atiba R. Ellis, Professor of Law, West Virginia University College of Law. Twitter: @atibaellis

    *This post is part of ACSblog’s symposium regarding the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

    The cornerstone of our democratic republic is the right to vote. The vote allows “We the People” ultimate say over government. The vote allows “We the People” to reject big-money-funded misinformation, the erosion of fundamental rights, and the degradation of public policy. As the Supreme Court has said for over a century, the right to vote is the most fundamental political right because it is “preservative of all other rights.” 

    To be effective at these (admittedly lofty) goals, we also have to recognize that the diversity of our electorate matters. For government to be legitimate, all citizens should be able to participate. Arbitrary bars to political participation raise questions of the validity of representative bodies. History has shown that in the absence of broad enfranchisement, government only acts for the unrepresentative majority. That majority can (and does) marginalize the minority when it comes to the minority’s status as equal citizens. This describes the majoritarian racial domination that defined the Jim Crow era of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 (the “VRA”), which we celebrate in this symposium, is the Constitution’s weapon against this racial domination.

    This state of racial domination had its roots in Reconstruction. The Reconstruction-era Congress, as I note here, sought specifically to protect the vote of freed slaves. The Republican majority in Congress of the late 1860s feared that terrorist tactics and legalized mischief would dissuade African Americans (an important Republican voting bloc) from the franchise. This Congress passed, and the states ratified, the Fifteenth Amendment that constitutionalized the idea of a right to vote free of racial discrimination.

    But the Reconstruction Congress’s fears came true in the century that followed. Even with the Fifteenth Amendment, our constitutional structure nonetheless relies heavily on states to define and administer the qualifications for voting. The Jim Crow period was created by a the southern states betraying the Fifteenth Amendment through race-neutral yet nonetheless disempowering tactics like poll taxes and literacy tests that crushed black political power.

    Thus, by the time the VRA was passed in 1965 to address these concerns, the democratic legitimacy of the United States was openly questioned. Two Americas existed—a white male America with full civil and political power and a black America where two-thirds of African Americans had been discouraged, dissuaded, and terrorized out of the vote.

  • August 7, 2015
    Guest Post

    by J. Gerald Hebert and Nate Blevins. Mr. Hebert is the Executive Director and Director of Litigation at The Campaign Legal Center. Mr. Blevins is a Fellow at the Campaign Legal Center. The Campaign Legal Center partners with ACS for the Voting Rights Institute.

    *This post is part of ACSblog’s symposium regarding the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

    Barely a page into his majority opinion in Shelby County v. Holder, Chief Justice John Roberts makes a claim that in any other context would seem unremarkable, even obvious: "Voting discrimination still exists; no one doubts that."

    The Chief Justice was at least half right: The overwhelming evidence indicating that "voting discrimination still exists" is beyond debate. What's unclear, however, is whether "no one doubts" such discrimination still exists. In fact, the Chief himself seems to doubt it quite a bit.

    In Shelby, the Court's task should have been straightforward. In the past, the Justices had held consistently that "Congress may use any rational means to effectuate the constitutional prohibition of racial discrimination in voting." As a result, all the Court needed to decide was whether the Voting Rights Act’s Section 4 preclearance formula (as applied through Section 5) was a "rational means" of enforcing the guarantees of the Fifteenth Amendment. Indeed, the Court had little difficulty making that determination prior to Shelby County: It upheld the Voting Rights Act's preclearance regime first in South Carolina v. Katzenbach in 1966 and affirmed it again 14 years later in City of Rome v. U.S. Both times, it rejected claims that the VRA exceeded Congress's power to enforce voting rights, going so far as to call the choice to extend the VRA "unassailable" and "plainly a constitutional method of enforcing the Fifteenth Amendment."

    So, what changed? How did the Court go from treating the VRA's constitutionality as "plain" and "unassailable" to having, as the majority put it in Shelby, "no choice but to declare [the preclearance provisions] unconstitutional"?