House Minority Leader Steny H. Hoyer , left, shakes hands with Lewis before the start of a Congressional Black Caucus news conference Tuesday to discuss the Supreme Court decision on the Voting Rights Act. Rep. Steven Horsford is pictured at center.
The Supreme Court on Tuesday called on Congress to rewrite a portion of the Voting Rights Act that justices said is outdated and unconstitutional, but any legislative effort is likely to run headlong into both pervasive congressional gridlock and some Republicans’ contention that minorities face few obstacles at the polls.
The court’s decision renders part of the law unenforceable unless Congress acts, and supporters of the Voting Rights Act are concerned they will not be able to enact the legislative fixes needed to save it.
This fear is not new. One of the reasons the reauthorization of the VRA was pushed through in 2006 and not later, when it was scheduled to expire in August 2007, was because then- House Judiciary Chairman Jim Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., worried that once he turned over his gavel in the following Congress, the incoming leader would not have the will to renew it.
But in renewing the VRA, Congress also declined to change the formula for states that need preclearance to change their voting laws; it was that formula the Supreme Court struck down Tuesday.
But some Republicans said there is no need for Congress to act.
“It was good news, I think, for the South in that [the court found there was] not sufficient evidence to justify treating them disproportionately than, let’s say, Philadelphia or Boston or Los Angeles or Chicago,” said Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, the former top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee.
When pushed on whether he supports preclearance in principle, Sessions said: “Well, I don’t think it should exist in Shelby County. Shelby County has never had a history of denying voters and certainly not now.”
When presented with Sessions’ remarks about the history of voter discrimination in Alabama, Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., a former civil rights activist, grew visibly upset and rebuffed such a characterization.
“I was born in Alabama. I lived in Alabama, most my young life. ... In Alabama, the same year that President Barack Obama was born, white people and black people couldn’t sit together in a bus station or ride together in a taxicab. They had to change that,” Lewis said. “Teachers, college professors, lawyers and doctors, and they were told they could not read or write well enough, and they failed the so-called literacy test, and they were not able to register to vote until after the Voting Rights Act was passed and signed into law on August 6, 1965.”
Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., right, hugs Harold Schaitberger, General President of the International Association of Fire Fighters, after the Congressman spoke at the IAFF's Legislative Conference General Session at the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill, March 9, 2015. The day featured addresses by members of Congress and Vice President Joe Biden.