“The great preventative stop sign that is Section 5 has now lost one of it’s arms.” — Barbara Arnwine
The Big Rollback. In what voting rights activists call a decision that sets voting rights in America back 100 years, the U.S. Supreme Court declared Section 4 of the 1965 Voting Rights Act unconstitutional today. Section 4, a vital provision of voting rights law, mandates that changes in voting laws must be cleared by the federal government court.
The Supreme Court’s decision comes 13 days after the 50th anniversary of the murder of Medgar Evers and four days after the 49th anniversary of the murders of three civil rights workers who came to Mississippi in June of 1964 to register voters as part of “freedom summer.” James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner were killed by the Ku Klux Klan on June 22 in an incident that put national attention on racial justice. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 passed Congress and was signed into law by President Johnson the next year.
This year will also mark the 5oth anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech and other major events the Civil Rights Movement. Today, in her dissenting opinion against the gutting of the Voting Rights Act, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg quoted Martin Luther King, Jr.
“The decision is deeply disturbing because it undermines and puts our Democracy at risk … today’s decision severely undermines the legal protections that have been vital for more than 5 decades of protecting voters of all nationalities… this decision is a betrayal of the American people,” said Barbara Arnwine, Executive Director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.
The votes on the court to kill Section 4 were predictable. The five votes to strike it down were cast by Justices John Roberts, Clarence Thomas, Sam Alito, Athony Kennedy and Antonin Scalia.
The minority decision was written by Ginsberg and she was joined in diseent by Justices Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagen and Stephen Breyer. Advocates said the 5-4 ruling by the court was an “activist” decision that ignored evidence of continuing racial discrimination and efforts to interfere with the rights of minority voters.
During oral arguments, Justice Scalia said there was nothing more than a ‘racial entitlement” being perpretrated by those attempting to protect voting rights. It was clear that Justice Kennedy would be the fifth and decicive vote on the court in the case of Shelby County v. Holder.
“We don’t have the Justice Department right now — we have to be very guarded and very vigilant and watch what happens in the states … This is a crisis and an emergency in this country,” said National Urban League President Marc Morial during an interview.
“It was a betrayal of voting rights and a slap in the face of Congress,” said, NAACP Legal Defense Fund Director Sherrilyn Ifill. She said that Congress reaffirmed the Voting Rights Act in 2006 and the
“It’s a shocking decision … The Supreme Court over-reached today,” she added.
The year before the 2012 presidential campaign, over 30 states in the U.S. passed laws to make voting more difficult. All were passed by Republican controlled state legislatures and signed by Republican governors. Four members of the Supreme Court appointed to Republican presidents appear to have ignored the sudden spate of new voter ID laws and voting requirements.
“Where voters of color about to take the majority and have power we will see attempts at voter suppression,” said Ryan Haygood of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.
Many voting rights activists, led by Wade Henderson of the Leadership Council on Civil Rights made the point that Congress already verified the need for the Voting Rights Act during their last reauthorization in 2006. That sentiment was reflected in a statement by a member of the House Judiciary Committee, Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA).
“While considering reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act in 2006, Congress received over 15,000 pages of documentation from covered states showing the continued need for their coverage. These states were covered “the old fashioned way: they earned it.” Jurisdictions that feel that they are inappropriately covered have a process by which they can be “bailed out.” In fact, many jurisdictions have bailed out by showing that they were no longer discriminating in their election procedures. Just yesterday, Hanover County, Virginia was cleared to bailout,” Scott’s statement said.
In April 2011, the Congressional Black Caucus asked Preisdent Obama to establish a Voting Rights Task Force during meeting in the Oval Office. None was created.
Today, President Obama spoke on climate change at Georgetown University.
Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy has announed hearings to get the process going on in Congress to restore Section 4 which was stricken by the court today.