A steady drumbeat of press briefings and messaging events is reaching a crescendo as the Supreme Court prepares to hear arguments Wednesday in a case that questions whether a key provision of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 is still needed.
Briefing breakfasts, afternoon seminars, information sessions on the Hill and a coordinated bus campaign that mimics the Freedom Rides of the 1960s all focus on influencing the outcome of Shelby County v. Holder.
“While the justices play a distinct role in our society and in our country, they’re not divorced from society at large. I can’t see how they couldn’t be influenced by what people think about their actions,” said Ellen Buchman, vice president of field operations for the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, which is planning a rally during Wednesday’s oral arguments.
The case will focus on a provision of the Voting Rights Act that requires areas with a history of discrimination to “preclear” any changes to their voting procedures with the Justice Department. The legal team representing Shelby County, Ala., will argue that the requirement is outdated and unnecessarily burdensome. The Justice Department and civil rights attorneys will say it is still a powerful, and needed, tool to address entrenched voting discrimination.
The outcome will be influenced by the steps Congress took when it last reauthorized the provision in 2006 for another 25 years. The renewal passed the House 390-33 and the Senate 98-0. Some of the justices have indicated in previous rulings that Congress should examine adjusting the methodology that is used to determine which geographic areas are covered by the statute. The current formula uses decades-old election data.
What’s at stake in the case has not been lost on interest groups on the political left and right. The messaging, in fact, rivals some of the activity seen before last year’s Supreme Court arguments on the constitutionality of the 2010 health care law.
On Feb. 22, for example, there were at least two Shelby County events hosted by ideologically opposite groups in different parts of Washington.
NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund President and General Counsel Sherrilyn Ifill told a breakfast meeting that Congress “really did its job” when it passed and reauthorized the preclearance provision. Special Counsel Debo Adegbile, who will be helping the government defend the statute before the court, said the preclearance portion of the law continues to be the only remedy for areas that have shown “repetitive efforts to discriminate against minority voters.”
Just hours later, The Heritage Foundation held a briefing on the “(Un)Constitutionality of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act” hosted by conservative legal scholar Hans von Spakovsky. Alabama’s Solicitor General John Neiman, Center for Equal Opportunity President Roger Clegg, Todd Gaziano of The Heritage Foundation and Jones Day Partner Michael Carvin were the panelists. White voters are “wide open to electing black Democrats ... as much as white Democrats,” Carvin told the audience.