Shelby County

  • September 20, 2013

    by Lara Schwartz

    Every high school history student learns that since Marbury v. Madison, the courts “say what the law is.”  However, when we vote we choose those who choose our judges, which means We the People play a role in saying what the law is. Americans recognize that judges and justices approach the law from different perspectives and that their approaches affect the outcomes of cases we care about. Presidential candidates make promises about what kinds of judges they will appoint for a reason: because it matters. But what do the American people expect from our judiciary?

    We’re often told Americans want a “conservative” Court and that they are sympathetic to originalism. A poll taken after Justice Stevens announced his retirement indicated that more Americans (42 percent) wanted a new justice who would make the Court more conservative than those who wanted to see the Court become more liberal (27 percent). Some surveys hint that Americans’ views on constitutional interpretation are sharply divided: a Pew Survey found that half of Americans (50 percent) say the Court’s rulings should be based on its understanding of what the U.S. Constitution means in current times, while about as many (45 percent) say rulings should be based on its understanding of what the Constitution meant as originally written. Yet although voters might find the term “conservative” and the idea of “as originally written” appealing in principle, they don’t agree with what the conservative justices do in practice.

    Americans overwhelmingly support upholding Roe v. Wade, which has become conservative shorthand for a liberal, activist Court.  Even Roe’s supporters don’t tend to call it conservative or claim it exemplifies originalist constitutional interpretation, yet only 29 percent of Americans believe that Roe should be overturned, which is fewer than the 43 percent who believe abortion is “morally wrong.”    

    Most Americans also agree with the Court’s ruling in U.S. v. Windsor, which struck down the section of the so-called Defense of Marriage Act that denied same-sex couples federal benefits. This places them at odds with the Court’s conservative bloc. By contrast, 33 percent approve of the Court’s decision in Shelby County v. Holder, which struck down part of the Voting Rights Act, compared with 51 percent who disapprove. 

  • September 28, 2011
    Guest Post

    By Mark Posner, Senior Counsel, Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law


    Recently, Judge John Bates of the U.S. District Court in Washington, DC, ruled that a core provision of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 – the Section 5 “preclearance” requirement – remains a constitutional exercise of Congress’ anti-discrimination authority under the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments. This was a major victory in our nation’s ongoing efforts to “banish the blight of racial discrimination in voting.”

    This challenge to the constitutionality of Section 5 was brought by Shelby County, Ala., a largely white suburb of Birmingham. In rejecting the County’s arguments, Judge Bates agreed with an earlier unanimous decision, by a three-judge panel of the D.C. District Court (Nw. Mun. Util. Dist. No. One v. Holder, 573 F. Supp. 2d 221 (D.D.C. 2008)), which likewise upheld the constitutionality of Section 5, in a case brought by a local Texas utility district. That earlier decision, however, was vacated in 2009 when the Supreme Court decided that the utility district could pursue a statutory “bailout” from Section 5 coverage. Unlike the Texas utility district, Shelby County freely admitted that it has a recent history of voting discrimination that disqualified it from “bailing out.”

    Section 5 requires states and localities with a history of discrimination in voting – mostly in the South and Southwest – to obtain federal preclearance before implementing any changes in a voting “standard, practice, or procedure.” Preclearance is obtained by demonstrating, either to the Attorney General or the D.C. District Court, that the change does not have a discriminatory purpose or effect.

    Congress enacted the preclearance procedure in 1965 after it found that certain jurisdictions with a history of voting discrimination often were devising new discriminatory voting practices when old ones were struck down by the federal courts. Thereafter, Congress reauthorized Section 5 four times, in 1970, 1975, 1982, and, most recently, in 2006, each time finding that voting discrimination in the covered jurisdictions had remained high. Section 5 has prevented hundreds of discriminatory voting changes from going into effect, and has deterred countless others from ever being enacted.

    In the Shelby County case, Judge Bates confronted the fundamental question of what legal standard should be used to determine whether, as Shelby County claimed, Congress had exceeded its authority in reauthorizing Section 5 for 25 years in 2006. Shelby County invoked recent Supreme Court holdings that, at least as to certain Fourteenth Amendment legislation, “[t]here must be a congruence and proportionality between the injury to be prevented or remedied and the means adopted to that end.”  In so doing, the County proposed a standard that would effectively preclude Congress from renewing effective antidiscrimination laws. The United States and defendant-intervenors (represented by civil rights organizations and law firms, including the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, the ACLU, and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund) argued that, in its prior rulings in 1966 and 1980 upholding Section 5, the Supreme Court held that Congress may “use any rational means to effectuate the constitutional prohibition of racial discrimination in voting.” 

  • July 25, 2011
    Guest Post

    By Dr. Greg Rabidoux


    Speaking before a joint session of Congress on March 15, 1965, LBJ urged support for the Voting Rights Act (VRA). He implored all members to get behind it or risk being on the wrong side of history. He asserted that “Experience has clearly shown that the existing process of law cannot overcome systematic and ingenious discrimination. No law…can ensure the right to vote when local officials are determined to deny it.”

    That was then, and Justice Clarence Thomas (among others) and his assertion that the time for the Voting Rights Act has indeed come and gone, is now.

    But before we throw dirt on the VRA once and for all, a bit of context is in order.

    With the current redistricting cycle full steam ahead, the VRA becomes controlling  when plaintiffs seek to challenge newly drawn maps of legislative districts with sections (2) and (5) being invoked. Section 2 prohibits any “voting qualification or prerequisite to voting, or standard, practice or procedure” being imposed or applied to any State or political subdivision” that would “deny or abridge the right of any citizen of the United States to vote on account of race or color” while Section (5) requires a DOJ or US District Court of DC “pre-clearance” when seeking to administer any voting qualification, procedure, standard, practice or procedure “different from that in force or effect November 1, 1964.”

    Ever since Allen v State Board of Elections (1969) the VRA (sections 2 and 5) have been the “go to” weapon in any savvy plaintiff’s arsenal to attack partisan maps that target minority representation and political voting power for dilution. But under the Roberts Court, those days may be fast coming to a halt.

    Currently, there are two cases that especially merit our close watch. Shelby County, Alabama v Holder (2010) is challenging the constitutionality of section 5. They argue that the VRA is a relic of the past and its intent to “enforce the 15th Amendment by appropriate legislation” is as outdated as hula contests and hoop skirts.