Voting rights

  • June 25, 2013
    Guest Post

    by Gabriel "Jack" Chin, Professor of Law at the University of California, Davis, School of Law. He was co-author of an amicus brief in Shelby County, and of The Tyranny of the Minority: Jim Crow and the Counter-Majoritarian Difficulty, published in the Harvard Civil Rights-Civil Liberties Law Review.

    Perhaps politicians will no longer do anything they can get away with to win elections, perhaps legislatures will no longer entrench themselves through districting and gerrymandering, perhaps, in short, in the recent past human nature has changed entirely.  If not, though, the Supreme Court’s 5-4 decision invalidating the coverage formula of the preclearance provisions of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 may well come to be regarded as one of the Court’s grand overreaches.  As obtuse on race as Dred Scott, as judicially activist as Lochner, Shelby County moves us a long step away from the goal of reliable elections reflecting the will of the majority.

    The underlying problem is that African Americans are, and have been, bloc voters to a degree matched by no other racial or ethnic group.  There is, therefore, a potential electoral payoff for conservatives in suppressing or manipulating their right to vote that exists in no other context.  African Americans also hold the balance of power in many jurisdictions, and because of residential segregation, can be subject to discriminatory treatment in a way that “Democrats” or even Asians or Latinos cannot.  Accordingly, African Americans have always been an irresistible target for manipulation and disenfranchisement, and volumes of creative electoral provisions have been created to prevent them from voting effectively.  Critically, the impulse to discriminate will remain even if racial animus has diminished, so long as political rewards for suppression remain in place.

    In Shelby County, the Court, per Chief Justice Roberts, insisted that our nation had changed.  It held that Congress in reenacting the Voting Rights Act in 2006, should not have used a coverage formula based on practices and registration figures from the 1960s and 1970s. The extraordinary burdens of the preclearance provisions, it explained, had to be justified by current conditions.  For a variety of reasons, many outlined in Justice Ginsburg’s dissent, the holding is not persuasive.

  • June 25, 2013

    by Jeremy Leaming

    The Supreme Court’s conservative majority has been itching to gut the landmark Voting Rights Act for some time and today it took a big step toward doing so. The conservative bloc led by Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. invalidated Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act (VRA), which includes a formula for determining the states, towns and localities that must obtain approval or preclearance from the federal government for proposed changes to their voting laws and procedures.

    In its 2009 opinion in Northwest Austin Municipal Util. Dist. No. One v. Mukasey, the conservative justices avoided the constitutional challenge to the heart of the Voting Rights Act, but nonetheless reiterated their desire to gut it.

    This time around a constitutional challenge brought by officials in a mostly white Alabama County gave the conservative bloc what it needed. Writing for the majority in Shelby County v. Holder, Roberts noted that in Northwest, his conservative colleagues “expressed serious doubt about the Act’s continued constitutionality.”

    Roberts continued, “We explained that Sec. 5 ‘imposes substantial federalism costs’ and ‘differentiates between States, despite our historic tradition that all the States enjoy equal sovereignty.’ We also noted that ‘[t]hings have changed in the South. Voter turnout and registration rates now approach parity. Blatantly discriminatory evasions of federal decrees are rare. And minority candidates hold office at unprecedented levels.’ Finally we questioned whether the problems that Sec. 5 meant to address were still ‘concentrated in the jurisdictions singled out for preclearance.’” Sec. 4 includes the forumla for deciding what jursidictions must comply with the VRA's Sec. 5 preclearance provision. 

    Though the case raised constitutional claims of equality among Americans, like ensuring minorities are not deprived of a fundamental right to vote, the conservative justices in Shelby were much more interested in equality among the states. As they put, citing Northwest, a “fundamental principle of equal sovereignty. Over a hundred years ago, this Court explained that our Nation ‘was and is a union of States, equal in power, dignity and authority.’ Indeed, ‘the constitutional equality of the States is essential to the harmonious operation of the scheme upon which the Republic was organized.’”

    “The Voting Rights Act sharply departs from these basic principles,” Roberts wrote. “It suspends ‘all changes to state election law – however innocuous – until they have been precleared by federal authorities in Washington, D.C.”

    The conservative bloc was also incredibly confident that voter discrimination in the covered jurisdictions, mostly in the South, is a thing of the past. The majority pointed to an increase in minority registration and turnout.

    While voter discrimination allegedly subsided, Congress made the VRA more stringent and its formula for determining covered jurisdictions remained static, the majority groused. “Coverage today is based on decades-old data and eradicated practices,” Roberts wrote.

    When Congress reauthorized the VRA in 1996, which it did overwhelmingly, it should have altered its coverage formula, Roberts argued. “It instead reenacted a formula based on 40-year-old facts having no logical relationship to the present day,” he said.

    Roberts also claimed that the majority was carefully invalidating a provision of the VRA, and maintained the Court was providing “no holding” on Section 5. Instead Roberts said Congress could create a new formula.

    The dissent, lodged by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and joined by Justices Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan, however, found that the majority had usurped a job for Congress, and in a rather sloppy manner. (Congress, Ginsburg wrote, should be given deference in its constitutional authority to create appropriate legislation to enforce the 14th and 15th Amendments.)

  • June 21, 2013

    by E. Sebastian Arduengo

    Since the rise of the tea party in 2010, conservative Republican Congressmen have come to Washington with the goal of dismantling government as we know it. In the last three years their biggest legislative accomplishment has been the sequester– a package of federal spending cuts that does very little to accomplish the tea partiers stated goal of reducing the federal deficit, but goes a long way towards gutting government programs millions of Americans depend on, like Head Start. At the 2013 ACS National Convention, Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley offered a contrasting vision of a government that met the constitutional directive of providing for the general welfare.

    O’Malley, who joked that he was far from the most accomplished jurist in his family (3 of his siblings are attorneys and his wife is a state court judge in Baltimore), told the audience that for all the questions facing Americans today, from creating jobs to making sure that greater freedom, opportunity, and justice are available for all, “a working and effective government is an indispensable and essential part of the answer.”

    The governor decried the fact that citizen engagement is down, and court rulings like Crawford v. Marion County Election Board, embolden states around the country to pass restrictive voting laws in the guise of preventing “voter fraud.” At the same time, Republican controlled state legislatures have perfected the subtle art of choosing constituents for conservative incumbents, resulting in unbending ideologues being sent to Congress. The result, as former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich recently put it is a “quiet closing of Washington,” A place with, “No jobs agenda. No budget. No grand bargain on the deficit. No background checks on guns. Nothing on climate change. No tax reform. No hike in the minimum wage. Nothing so far on immigration reform.”

    Gov. O’Malley contrasted the gridlock at the federal level to the progress being made in Maryland, where recognizing things like “equal rights, inclusion, diversity, an open society, respect for the dignity of every individual” are seen as making the state a “more innovative and creative place” that benefits all Marylanders.

  • June 17, 2013

    Editor's note: This post has been updated to include comment from UC Davis School of Law Professor Gabriel "Jack" Chin.

    by Jeremy Leaming

    The U.S. Supreme Court voting 7-2 dealt a setback to Arizona’s rigid voter ID law, saying the state’s additional citizenship requirements were preempted by federal elections laws.

    The setback could be seen as a victory of sorts for opponents of state efforts aimed at crafting and implementing more hurdles to voting, ones that disproportionately impact minorities, poor people, the elderly and students. Justice Antonin Scalia’s opinion, however, left the door open for Arizona and other states to try to alter the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA, also known as motor-voter) to impose stricter requirements to vote. 

    In Arizona v. Inter Tribal Council, the majority led by Scalia found that Arizona’s Proposition 200 provision requiring elections officials to “reject any application for registration that is not accompanied by satisfactory evidence of United States citizenship” must “give way” to the federal form created by the Election Assistance Commission (EAC). The NVRA requires states to “accept and use” that federal form. As Scalia noted, the federal form “does not require documentary evidence of citizenship; rather it requires only that an applicant aver, under penalty of perjury, that he is a citizen.” Scalia was joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan.

    The NVRA and the EAC were created pursuant to the Constitution’s Elections Clause (Article I, Section 4), which states, “The Times, Places and Manner of holding Elections for Senators and Representatives, shall be prescribed in each State by the Legislature thereof; but the Congress may at any time by Law make or alter such Regulations ….”

    Scalia wrote that the “textual question” in the case centered on whether the NVRA’s requirement that states “accept and use” the federal form preempts Arizona’s state-law requirement that officials reject “the application of a prospective voter who submits a completed Federal Form unaccompanied by documentary evidence of citizenship.”

    Arizona officials argued that its reading of the federal law allowed it to reject a federal form if it failed to include the additional information set out in the state law.

    Scalia said it “is improbable” that the federal law “envisions a completed copy of the form it takes such pains to create as being anything less than ‘valid.’”

    He continued, “States retain the flexibility to design and use their own registration forms, but the Federal Form [created by the EAC]  provides a backstop: No matter what procedural hurdles a State’s own form imposes, the Federal Form guarantees that a simple means of registering to vote in federal elections will be available.”

  • June 6, 2013
    BookTalk
    Father, Son, and Constitution
    How Justice Tom Clark and Attorney General Ramsey Clark Shaped American Democracy
    By: 
    Alexander Wohl

    by Alexander Wohl. Mr. Wohl is an adjunct professor at American University Washington College of Law, speech writer in the federal government and a former Supreme Court Judicial Fellow. For more information about his new book on Justice Tom Clark and his son Attorney General Ramsey Clark, visit the Father, Son, and Constitution Facebook page.

    As the only father and son to serve as attorneys general of the United States, Tom and Ramsey Clark are an historically unique pair, a distinction made even more noteworthy by Justice Tom Clark’s decision to give up his seat on the Supreme Court in 1967 so that his son could become President Lyndon Johnson’s attorney general. The tag-team tenure in government of this father and son was an unprecedented shared proximity to power and policy influence during some of the most challenging, divisive, and triumphant periods in U.S. history, from World War II to the attacks of September 11, 2001. But their impact is more far-reaching. In combined careers of more than 100 years and lives spanning three centuries, the Clarks provide a useful lens through which to examine the complex relationship between government and individual citizens that has defined and shaped U.S. legal and social policy through the present day.

    At the heart of both Tom and Ramsey Clark’s work were many issues addressing this balance: the extent to which individuals should be prosecuted for “dangerous” speech or associations, when to use invasive law enforcement tools such as wiretapping, what type or duration of confinement constitutes unlawful detention, and the kind of role the federal government itself can or should play in the development of various policies and the enforcement of individual constitutional principles.

    On these and other thorny questions the Clarks at once offer a set of ideological bookends and proof that views can evolve over time, a combination largely absent in an environment today in which questions about law and policy increasingly lead to ideological stratification and decision makers ever more pigeonholed in their views. While Tom and Ramsey Clark had clear differences in their outlook and approach, they often found common ground on many issues, including gun control, juvenile crime, and civil rights, along the way learning from each other.