Voting Rights Act vs. the Courts.

With all the talk over the individual mandate and health-care reform, oral argument in Shelby County v. Holder yesterday in the D.C. federal court got little attention. The Alabama county of Shelby is challenging the constitutionality of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, which requires designated local and state governments to get approval from the Department of Justice or courts before changing any voting laws or procedures. 

In 2006, a near unanimous Congress renewed Section 5 after evidence proved the continued need for the "preclearance" provision. According to The Washington Post, before reauthorizing Section 5, "Congress held 21 hearings and collected 16,000 pages of testimony to establish that the act is still needed. The [DOJ] has rejected or forced modifications since 1982 to 800 proposed changes by covered jurisdictions, including 420 cases in which changes appeared to be ‘intentionally discriminatory.’"

The issue was brought before the Supreme Court in 2009 and the Court, surprisingly, demurred on the question of Section 5. However, Chief Justice Roberts did invite further challenges, offering that "things have changed in the South."

In this case, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund demonstrated the persistent racism by showcasing the redistricting effort by the city of Calera, Alabama, in the county bringing the suit. A few years ago, the city eliminated its majority-black city-council district, and thus its only African American city councilman. The DOJ voided the election and ordered a second redistricting that revived the majority-black district and their representative, prompting the challenge. Of course, you need only go back a few days to see voter-suppression tactics at work across the country. Texas, North and South Carolina, Wisconsin, Kansas, and a few other states are pushing voter-ID laws that, as the Prospect reported earlier this month, disenfranchise poor and minority voters.

As the challenge works its way up the court system, Section 5 will again be at the mercy of the Roberts Court. It’s easy to imagine the Court finally striking it down, in express disregard for the wishes of Congress. It’s as if the Court exists in an alternate reality where, in the last 50 years, minorities have completely recovered from centuries of oppression while business has become the new, underprivileged class.

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