By Hazel Trice Edney
The U.S. Supreme Court agreed earlier this month to hear a challenge to the Voting Rights Act (VRA). The court will hear arguments relating to the federal Voting Rights Act’s requirement that states with a history of racial bias must obtain Justice Department approval prior to implementing changes in their election laws. The current prior approval process is call “preclearance”.
The challenge comes in a lawsuit by Shelby County, Ala. which is seeking an end to preclearance by the Justice Department of changes sought at the local level to election laws governing Alabama and 15 other states and towns with a history of discrimination in voting practices.
“The Supreme Court’s decision to hear the Shelby County case is deeply disappointing,” Wade Henderson, president and CEO of the Leadership Coalition for Civil Rights, said in a statement released Nov. 9, hours after the high court agreed to take the case.
The justices’ statement indicated that it will hear arguments, likely in early 2013, about the critical section of the Voting Rights Act.
But, Henderson and other voting rights advocates said they view the Supreme Court action as a potential threat to voting rights, especially in states where there is a history of voting law bias.
In light of the “Voting Right Act’s continuing importance,” especially just three years after the high court, in Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District No. 1 v. Holder reaffirmed a critical section of the law, Henderson said, to accept a fresh legal challenge to the law “is beyond comprehension.”
“At that time, the Court recognized that ‘Congress amassed a sizable record in support of its decision to extend the preclearance requirements’ and noted extensive evidence of ongoing racial discrimination in covered states,” he said, citing the wording of the court’s ruling.
In a climate defined by widespread attempts at voter suppression, to consider challenging the law raises fears that progress in the battle against state bias is eroding, according to the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.
“Given the extensive voter suppression we’ve seen around the country, I think Section 5’s relevance could not be clearer,” Elise Bodied, the group’s litigation director, told Reuters.
The court’s decision to hear the challenge was applauded by Edward Blum, director of the Project on Fair Representation, which launched the suit and opposes race-based policies.
“The America that elected and reelected Barack Obama as its first African-American president is far different than when the Voting Rights Act was first enacted in 1965. Congress unwisely reauthorized a bill that is stuck in a Jim Crow-era time warp,” Blum said in a Nov. 9 statement.
The court’s decision in 2009 skirted ruling on the constitutionality of the law. And Chief Justice John Roberts, dissenting from a 2006 ruling on the Voting Rights Act, has assailed what he calls “a sordid business, this divvying us up by race.”
But Henderson voiced concern about the fate of the Voting Rights Act. “Over the past year, we have witnessed the most well-funded and well-coordinated assault against the right to vote since Democrats and Republicans first rose above partisan politics to pass the VRA almost fifty years ago. He said in the statement, “Now is hardly the time to turn back the clock on democracy.”