Members Weigh In on Voting Rights Case

Posted April 27, 2009 at 6:38pm

In a case that could have far-reaching implications for minority voters, the Supreme Court will hear arguments Wednesday on whether a central component of landmark civil rights legislation is still necessary 44 years after the original law was passed.

At issue is Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which seeks to protect minority voters by requiring the Justice Department to approve changes to voting practices and legislative district lines in certain states.

The case, which was originally brought by a small utilities district in Texas covered by Section 5’s “pre-clearance— requirement, has attracted a flurry of friend-of-the-court briefs from Members of Congress, and a few Members plan to be in attendance for Wednesday’s oral arguments.

Proponents of the law argue that while progress has been made since 1965, the country is far from resolving all racial issues related to voting. Supporters like Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), an icon of the civil rights movement who plans to attend tomorrow’s arguments, believe that until that day comes, Section 5 is an effective and necessary tool for deterring and eliminating voter discrimination.

But those challenging the law say that Section 5 is outdated, especially in light of the election of the first African-American president last year. They argue that the law puts an unfair burden and stigma on those states and counties that fall under the pre-clearance requirement.

[IMGCAP(1)]Rep. Lynn Westmoreland (R-Ga.), a leading voice in Congress against Section 5, has argued that the law is at odds with the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution and that Section 5 should either be applied to the entire country or done away with.

Today, pre-clearance applies to nine states as well as parts of seven others.

Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District No. 1, the plaintiff in the case, wasn’t created until 15 years after the VRA became law. But when the district sought to move its board of directors election from private homes and garages to a more public location, it was required to get Justice Department approval.

In 2006, just weeks after the VRA was extended for an additional 25 years, the municipal district filled suit in federal district court and set in motion the latest legal battle over Section 5.

Shortly after the VRA was first enacted, the Supreme Court ruled that Section 5 was constitutional because it was crafted as a temporary measure, and the issue has been revisited by the court since then.

In the court’s current review of the law, the leaders of the Congressional Black Caucus, Congressional Hispanic Caucus and Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus asked the justices to remember the lessons of the past.

“While the advancements for minority voters are rightly lauded, the lesson of America’s difficult history of race and politics teaches that these gains are often fragile,— wrote Reps. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), Nydia Velázquez (D-N.Y.) and Mike Honda (D-Calif.) in a friend-of-the-court brief. “As the Jim Crow experience following the derailed Reconstruction aptly demonstrates, withdrawing federal protections that … remedy and deter discrimination effectively should be approached with great care.—

Another group of Members and former Members argued that Congress’ repeated and overwhelming reauthorization of the VRA offers clear evidence for why Section 5 is still necessary.

House Judiciary Chairman John Conyers (D-Mich.), Reps. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.), Mel Watt (D-N.C.) and Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), and former Rep. Steve Chabot (R-Ohio) argued in their brief that every time Congress has re-examined the Voting Rights Act, it has compiled numerous examples of why the law is justified.

“Congress had before it extensive and persuasive evidence that the protections of the Voting Rights Act are still necessary and that it remains a critical legal protection for those who have been historically disenfranchised, and whose right to cast an effective ballot is still very much at risk,— Nadler said through a spokesman.

Watt said Monday that he hopes the Supreme Court will agree with their view that the issue of pre-clearance is a Legislative Branch priority and, as such, respect how Congress has voted on the issue.

“This Court has recognized that Congress acts at the height of its powers when it legislates to regulate the political process, to prevent or remedy racial discrimination, or to protect fundamental rights, such as the right to vote,— states the brief that Watt and the others submitted. “When Congress exercises its powers at the intersection of these three concerns — as it did here — this Court should defer to Congress’s considered judgement.—

When Congress renewed the law in 2006, it passed unanimously in the Senate and had just 33 dissenting votes in the House.

But Westmoreland, who helped lead the opposition on that vote, said he believes Members who voted in favor of renewing the Voting Rights Act weren’t simply looking at the issue in terms of right and wrong.

“To me, it was another case of doing what’s politically correct rather than what’s right for the whole country,— Westmoreland said in an interview on Capitol Hill last week.

Westmoreland said he agrees with the opinions expressed by Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue (R), who hails from one of the states covered by Section 5.

“Today’s Georgia is not, as Congress suggests, a place where the state or local governments sponsor racial discrimination in the electoral process that must be curbed by the federal government. To the contrary … Georgia has earned the right to be free from the preclearance requirements of Section 5,— Perdue wrote.

Perdue pointed out that President Barack Obama’s 2008 vote total in Georgia was 3.8 percent higher than former Vice President Al Gore’s in 2000 and 5.6 percent higher than Sen. John Kerry’s (D-Mass.) in 2004.

“Congress’ insistence that Georgia has a continuing legacy of racism’ in the context of the renewal of the VRA is nonsensical when an African-American candidate for President receives a greater percentage of the vote than his white predecessor candidates,— Perdue wrote.

But Lewis, whose fame during the civil rights movement began the day he and other nonviolent demonstrators marched across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., and into the waiting clubs and bullwhips of state troopers, said the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965 represented a step toward a more enlightened society.

“As a nation we have marched many more steps to keep faith with our democratic ideals every time we have reauthorized and upheld the constitutionality of the Voting Rights Act,— Lewis wrote in his own brief. “Our march is not yet over and we cannot and should not stop now.—