Sec. 5

  • June 27, 2013
    Guest Post

    by Atiba R. Ellis, Associate Professor of Law, West Virginia University College of Law

    In  Shelby County, AL v. Holder, the Supreme Court, in a 5-4 decision split on ideological lines, declared unconstitutional the formula used under the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to determine which states and localities must receive pre-approval of their voting rights laws. This decision, which effectively ends the preclearance practice meant to preserve minority voting rights, will transform the right to vote for years to come. Once again, relying on the myth of racial progress, the Supreme Court failed to confront the racial balkanization in voting that exists, and it ultimately crippled the role that Voting Rights Act has in limiting it.

    This lawsuit was brought by Shelby County, Ala. This county, along with the rest of Alabama, as well as Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas, Virginia, Alaska, Arizona, and parts of seven other states (known as the “covered jurisdictions”) was required under Section Five of the Voting Rights Act to have any change in their election laws approved (or “precleared”) by the U.S. Department of Justice. The covered jurisdictions were selected for the preclearance requirement according to a formula set out in Section Four of the act. The formula considered the jurisdiction’s past history of voting rights violations, current violations, white and minority voting rates, and other factors.  Shelby County argued that both Section Five’s preclearance requirement and Section Four’s coverage formula were unconstitutional. The Court struck down the Section Four formula.

    Chief Justice Roberts' opinion for the five-justice conservative majority relied on two premises. First, the opinion stated that each state is due “equal sovereignty,” that is each state has power to regulate matters left to the states, including voting, to the same extent as other states. As innocuous as that might sound, consider Roberts’s second premise:  “the conditions that originally justified [the preclearance measures that justified differing treatment of states] no longer characterize voting in the covered jurisdictions.” Slip op. at 2.  Roberts pointed to substantial progress in voter participation and the increase in minority elected officials in the time from the passage of the act until now.  Id. at 13-15. Yet, Roberts continued, the current coverage formula does not reflect this reality.  “Coverage today is based on decades-old data and eradicated practices.”  Slip op. at 18.  “Racial disparity in those numbers was compelling evidence justifying the preclearance remedy and the coverage formula. There is no longer such a disparity.”  Id. 

  • 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.)

  • November 19, 2012

    by Jeremy Leaming

    One of the nation’s preeminent civil and human rights groups, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (LDF), tapped as its new leader one of the nation’s foremost civil rights attorneys and scholars Sherrilyn Ifill. The late Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall helped found LDF in 1940 and led the battle in its first couple of decades to end segregation of the public schools.

    Ifill (pictured), a frequent ACS participant, who has also occasionally provided guest posts for ACSblog, will be LDF’s next president and director-counsel in January. She is also a Professor of Law at the University of Maryland’s Francis King Carey School of Law, and as The Root notes is “no stranger to LDF’s work.”

    The Root continues:

    Early in her career, before joining the faculty of the University of Maryland School of Law, authoring On the Courthouse Lawn: Confronting the Legacy of Lynching in the 21st Century, and making a name for herself as a respected civil rights strategist, she served as assistant counsel in LDF’s New York office. There, she litigated voting rights cases, including the landmark Voting Rights Act case Houston Lawyers' Association vs. Attorney General of Texas.

    In March, LDF’s sixth Director-Counsel and President John Payton died. Payton, like his predecessors at LDF, was also a tireless advocate for civil liberties and human rights. In a tribute piece to Payton, ACS Board member and former LDF Director-Counsel and President Theodore M. Shaw said Payton’s “advocacy on behalf of the poor, the disenfranchised, and the excluded reached beyond the United States. He worked against the apartheid in South Africa, and traveled around the world in support of rights.”     

  • October 12, 2012

    by Jeremy Leaming

    Just as the nation is beset with invidious and widespread voter fraud, according to rightwing pundits and activists, there exists little, if any, intent among state lawmakers to suppress the vote of certain groups of people, like minorities.

    But in reality claims of voter fraud are wobbly, for there’s not much evidence it actually exists and racial discrimination whether overt or latent most certainly continues to hinder the nation’s long and difficult march toward full equality for all.

    Earlier this week a three-judge panel of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia blocked South Carolina’s voter ID law, R54, from being implemented for the 2012 elections. The federal court found that state election officials did not have sufficient time to implement the law in compliance with Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, which prohibits states from implementing laws that have the intent or the effect “of denying or abridging the right to vote on account of race or color.” Section 5 requires states and localities with histories of denying minorities the right to vote, South Caroline is one such state, to get “pre-clearance” from the federal court in D.C. or the Department of Justice.   

    The federal court in South Carolina v. U.S. granted pre-clearance for S.C.’s voter ID law for future elections, but only after S.C. lawmakers had made revisions to the law to ensure it did not subvert the Voting Rights Act. In addition the court noted that racial discrimination still exists in this nation and highlighted the importance of the law’s Sec. 5 pre-clearance provision.

    In the majority opinion, Judge Brett Kavanaugh emphasized the continued need for Sec. 5, saying, “Racial insensitivity, racial bias, and indeed outright racism are still problems throughout the United States as of 2012. We see that reality on an all-too-frequent basis.”

    And the only reason the S.C. voter ID law won pre-clearance for future elections rested primarily on changes to the law that provided for a “reasonable impediment provision,” which is meant to “ensure that all voters of all races with non-photo voter registration cards continue to have access to the polling place to the same degree they did under” the state’s previous voter ID law. The reasonable impediment provision is supposed to allow voters who show up at their precincts without a photo ID to still cast a provisional ballot if they sign an affidavit saying why they could not obtain an ID, such as inability to travel to an office to get the ID, illness, work-related matters, among other subjective reasons. And the provisional ballot, according to how the law has been interpreted, will be counted unless evidence surfaces that an affidavit is false.

    But Media Matters’ Sergio Muñoz points out that some rightwing media are, perhaps not surprisingly, claiming that the decision is actually a ringing endorsement of the need to kill Sec. 5 of the Voting Rights Act.

  • August 28, 2012

    by Jeremy Leaming

    Texas lawmakers’ plans to create new voting districts fail the parameters of the Voting Rights Act by discriminating against Latino voters, a federal court ruled today.

    Texas like a number of other states and localities must abide by the Voting Rights Act, which includes a section that requires those jurisdictions to receive preclearance for redistricting plans. The Voting Rights Act applies to states and localities that have a history of discriminating against classes of voters. Texas did not seek administrative preclearance and instead sought approval of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.

    The federal government opposed preclearance for some of Texas’s redistricting plan, but the three-judge panel of the U.S. District Court concluded that none of the state’s redistricting plan “merits preclearance.” (Texas sought to create new voting districts for its congressional delegation and its State House of Representatives as well as for the Texas Senate.)

    In attaining preclearance Texas needed to prove that “its redistricting plans have neither the effect nor the purpose of abridging minority voting rights.” The federal court found that Texas whiffed on that requirement. Texas tried to persuade the federal court that precedent allows the state to use its own method to determine whether its new voting districts would harm minority voters. The federal panel said, the state “is entitled to advocate its preferred methods of measuring minority voting strength, as we address those arguments below, but we need not defer to a state’s legal theory on how best to measure minority voters’ ability to elect.”

    After meticulously going through the various plans for the new voting districts, the federal court concluded in State of Texas v. U.S. that Texas failed to prove that its U.S. congressional and State House plans would not undercut Hispanic voters, “and that the U.S .Congressional and State Senate Plans were not enacted with discriminatory purpose.” The state therefore failed to “carry its burden” in showing its proposed voting districts would not “have the purpose or effect of denying or abridging the right to vote on account of race, color, or membership in a language minority group under section 5 of the Voting Rights Act.”