Ala. AG Joins Effort to Gut Landmark Civil Rights Law

January 11, 2013

by Jeremy Leaming

Hardly surprising, but another Alabama official is urging the U.S. Supreme Court to invalidate an integral provision of the Voting Rights Act. Efforts to suppress the votes of minorities no longer exist, Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange argues in a brief lodged with the U.S. Supreme Court, which will hear oral argument on Feb. 27 in a case challenging provisions of the landmark civil rights law, including its primary enforcement provision, Section 5.

The attorney general concedes in his brief that the state still “grapples with race relations issues, but they are the same kind of issues every state currently is endeavoring to solve,” reports Mary Orndorff Troyan for the Montgomery Advertiser.

Strange’s brief is filed in support of a lawsuit brought by Shelby County, Ala., “a conservative, mostly white county south of Birmingham,” as Troyan describes it. In Shelby County v. Holder, the officials argue that Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act is unconstitutional because it covers some but not all states. Section 5 requires all or parts of 16 states to obtain “preclearance” of proposed changes to voting procedures from the Department of Justice or a federal court in Washington, D.C. Section 5 of the law was intended to ensure that states and localities and with long histories of suppressing the vote of minorities do not create discriminatory voting procedures.

The NAACP LDF, which has intervened in the case to represent voters, argues that Section 5 remains central to the Voting Rights Act because it works to block discrimination before it occurs. LDF and other civil rights organizations have noted that the Supreme Court has ruled on numerous occasions that Section 5 is constitutional and that in 2006 Congress overwhelmingly reauthorized the Voting Rights Act. Congress, in reauthorizing the law, created a record “consisting of 15,000 pages of evidence” supporting the ongoing need for a strong enforcement provision.

Debo P. Adegbile, a senior LDF attorney, said not long after the high court agreed to hear the Shelby County case that, “In light of our history and recent voting experience, it would be an extraordinary judicial act for the Court to cast aside the sound judgment that America can and must do more to ensure equality.”  

Libertarian and rightwing legal outfits, however, have worked feverishly for many years to gut the Voting Rights Act, arguing, in part, that Section 5 undermines state sovereignty. 

Some of the same groups also claim that voter fraud is a serious problem throughout the country and that even greater restrictions on voting are needed deal with so-called voter fraud. Time again, however, these same groups fail to produce much evidence, if any, that in-person voter fraud exists in the country. See Loyola Law School Professor Justin Levitt’s ACS Issue Brief for the wobbly claims about voter fraud. (Before the end of the 112th Congress, several voting rights experts explained why the Section 5 remained a remained an integral part of Voting Rights Act.)

LDF and other civil rights groups are urging the high court to show judicial restraint and uphold a landmark civil rights law, one that is aimed at expanding the right to vote.