President Lyndon B. Johnson signs the Voting Rights Act at US Capitol alongside Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks. Photo: Yoichi R. Okamoto, courtesy Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum
At 11 am, as Congress unveiled a statue honoring Rosa Parks, the civil rights leaders of today (Including Rep. John Lewis, who nearly died in Selma during "Bloody Sunday") were gathered inside the Supreme Court, listening to a challenge to the centerpiece of the Voting Rights Act. The stark contrast illustrated the profound contradictions of American democracy when it comes to race and political power—the progress we’ve made has always been met by equally intense efforts to roll back that progress. And that remains true today, especially on February 27, 2013.
“To honor Rosa Parks in the fullest manner, each of us must do our part to protect that which has been gained, defend the great documents upon which those gains were obtained and continue our pursuit of a more perfect union,” Congressman James Clyburn, who grew up in segregated South Carolina in the 1940s and ’50s, said at the statue unveiling. Parks herself was present when Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act in the Capitol rotunda on August 6, 1965. Twelve years before famously refusing to move to the back of a segregated bus in Montgomery, Parks attempted to register to vote. She was denied three times, and had to pass a literacy test and pay a poll tax in 1945 just to exercise what should have been her fundamental right. That’s the way America was before the passage of the Voting Rights Act.
Inside the courtroom, five conservative Justices made the case for why Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act—which compels parts or all of sixteen states with a history of racial discrimination in voting to clear election-related changes with the federal government—is no longer necessary. (See my recent Nation article, “Why Are Conservative Trying to Destroy the Voting Rights Act?” for a definitive account of the Shelby County v. Holder case and the conservative organization and money behind the challenge.)
Section 5 is the most effective section of the most effective civil rights law ever passed by Congress and has been called the “keystone of our voting rights” by Attorney General Eric Holder. But to the conservative majority on the court, Section 5 is an antiquated infringement on state sovereignty, treating some states differently than others based on outdated data from the 1960s and ’70s. Justice Scalia mocked the entirety of the Voting Rights, calling congressional support for the legislation (which has been overwhelmingly reauthorized four times, most recently in 2006, and signed by four Republican presidents) a “perpetuation of racial entitlement.”
It quickly became clear inside the courtroom that there are four votes to uphold Section 5 and four votes to strike it down. Justice Kennedy, as is so often the case, appears to be the swing vote, although he certainly leaned toward the conservatives. Justice Kennedy seemed preoccupied by two questions: number one, does Section 5 still cover the states and localities where discrimination is most concentrated in order to justify its federalism constraints? And number two, are other parts of the Voting Rights Act, most notably Section 2, an adequate replacement for Section 5?
Section 2 applies nationwide, permanently, and puts the burden of proof on plaintiffs to show that a voting change is discriminatory after it has gone into effect, whereas Section 5 must be reauthorized by Congress and is targeted only at those with the worst history of voting discrimination, who must pre-clear any voting change with the Department of Justice or a federal court in DC. Section 2 has often been described as the “sword” to Section 5’s “shield.”
Solicitor General Donald Verrilli and NAACP Legal Defend Fund counsel Debo Adegbile did their best to assuage Kennedy’s concerns. Adegbile noted that jurisdictions covered by Section 5 accounted for a quarter of the US population but made up 81 percent of successful published and unpublished lawsuits that reached a favorable verdict for minority plaintiffs under Section 2, proving that discrimination remained localized in Section 5 states. Kennedy seemed unpersuaded:
JUSTICE KENNEDY: if Congress is going to single out separate States by name, it should do it by name. If not, it should use criteria that are relevant to the existing [problem] — and Congress just didn’t have the time or the energy to do this; it just reenacted it.
VERRILLI: I think it was rational and effective in 1965. The Court upheld it then, it upheld it three more times after that.
JUSTICE KENNEDY: Well, the Marshall Plan was very good, too, the Morale Act, the Northwest Ordinance, but times change.
VERRILLI: But the question is whether times had changed enough and whether the differential between the covered jurisdictions and the rest of the country had changed enough that Congress could confidently make the judgment that this was no longer needed.
Verrilli and Adegbile described Section 2 as a poor substitute for Section 5. As Kennedy himself noted in 2009, “Section 2 cases are very expensive. They are very long. They are very inefficient.” Section 2 lawsuits are incredibly complex, can take years to adjudicate and often cost millions of dollars, which few victims of voting discrimination can afford. Congress included Section 5 in the Voting Rights Act precisely because case-by-case litigation had failed to stop voting discrimination prior to 1965. “The reason Section 5 was created was because States were moving faster than litigation permitted to catch the new forms of discriminatory practices that were being developed,” said Justice Sotomayor. The genius of Section 5 was to “shift the advantage of time and inertia from the perpetrators of the evil to its victims,” Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote in the 1966 case South Carolina v. Katzenbach, the first of five unsuccessful challenges to Section 5.
In last year’s election cycle, the Justice Department under Section 5 opposed voter ID laws in Texas and South Carolina, early-voting cutbacks in Florida and redistricting maps in Texas. The federal courts in Washington sided with the DOJ in three of four cases, finding evidence of discriminatory effect and/or purpose, while also blocking South Carolina’s voter ID law for 2012. If Section 5 was gone and Section 2 was the only recourse, these major changes would’ve been in effect during the last election, and could only be challenged after years of costly and difficult litigation. The voters disenfranchised in the meantime would have no recourse, other than the hopes of a preliminary injunction from the courts, which is an increasingly rare prospect in a judiciary dominated by conservatives, especially in the South.
Amazingly, the voter suppression attempts that spread nationwide during the last election never came up during the oral arguments. The justices did not hear, for example, that six of the nine fully covered states under Section 5 passed new voting restrictions since 2010, including voter ID laws (Alabama, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia), limits on early voting (Georgia) and restrictions on voter registration (Alabama and Texas), compared to only one-third of noncovered jurisdictions during the same period. The insularity of the Supreme Court was particularly evident today. Opponents of Section 5 pointed to the fact that minority voter registration and turnout rates in places like Alabama are equal to or exceed states not covered by Section 5, but that hardly covers the scope of voting discrimination that exists in the South today.
CHIEF JUSTICE ROBERTS: General, is it the government’s submission that the citizens in the South are more racist than citizens in the North?
GENERAL VERRILLI: It is not, and I do not know the answer to that, Your Honor, but I do think it was reasonable for Congress—
CHIEF JUSTICE ROBERTS: Well, once you said it is not, and you don’t know the answer to it.
GENERAL VERRILLI: It’s not our submission. As an objective matter, I don’t know the answer to that question. But what I do know is that Congress had before it evidence that there was a continuing need based on Section 5 objections, based on the purpose-based character of those objections, based on the disparate Section 2 rate, based on the persistence of polarized voting, and based on a gigantic wealth of jurisdiction-specific and anecdotal evidence, that there was a continuing need.
CHIEF JUSTICE ROBERTS: A need to do what?
GENERAL VERRILLI: To maintain the deterrent and constraining effect of the Section 5 preclearance process in the covered jurisdictions
CHIEF JUSTICE ROBERTS: And not impose it on everyone else?
GENERAL VERRILLI: And—that’s right, given the differential in Section 2 litigation, there was a basis for Congress to do that.
One of the main tensions inside the courtroom was whether Congress or the Court gets to determine what is and isn’t valid under the Voting Rights Act. After all, the act has been overwhelmingly reauthorized four times by Congress, most recently in 2006. To Justice Scalia, that means it must be unconstitutional. “Even the name of it is wonderful: The Voting Rights Act,” Scalia said sarcastically. “Who is going to vote against that in the future?”
Yet both conservative and liberal members of Congress are urging the Court to respect both the original and recent findings of the legislative body. Notes an amicus brief filed by bipartisan members of Congress, including recent chairs of the House Judiciary Committee: “This Court has recognized that Congress acts at the height of its powers when it legislates to regulate the concerns at which the VRA is aimed: racial discrimination, infringement of fundamental rights, and elections. When Congress exercises its powers at the intersection of these three concerns—as it did here—this Court should defer to Congress’s considered judgment.”
Justice Kagan brought this up in an exchange with Shelby County’s lawyer, Bert Rein:
JUSTICE KAGAN: You said the problem [of voting discrimination in the South] has been solved. But who gets to make that judgment really? Is it you, is it the Court, or is it Congress?
MR. REIN: Well, it is certainly not me.
JUSTICE SCALIA: That’s a good answer. I was hoping you would say that.
MR. REIN: But I think the question is Congress can examine it, Congress makes a record; it is up to the Court to determine whether the problem indeed has been solved and whether the new problem, if there is one.
JUSTICE KAGAN: Well, that’s a big, new power that you are giving us, that we have the power now to decide whether racial discrimination has been solved? I did not think that that fell within our bailiwick.
It would be a truly radical step for the Court to dismiss the repeated and overwhelming judgment of Congress by striking down Section 5. The disappearance of Section 5 would be a devastating setback for voting rights—akin to the way the Citizens United decision eviscerated campaign finance regulation—and would greenlight the kind of voter suppression attempts that proved so unpopular in 2012.
It’s particularly ironic that Shelby County, Alabama, of all places, would bring this challenge to Section 5, given the recent history of discrimination in the county and state. Before local elections in 2008, the city of Calera redrew its city boundaries, eliminating the City Council’s lone majority-black district, represented by Ernest Montgomery since 2004. The city decreased the black voting-age population in Montgomery’s district from 71 percent to 30 percent by adding three overwhelmingly white subdivisions while failing to include a large surrounding black neighborhood. A day before the election, the Justice Department objected to the change. Calera could have preserved the majority-black district, the city’s demographer told Washington, but the City Council chose not to. Calera held the election in defiance of Justice Department orders, and Montgomery lost by two votes.
The Justice Department negated the election results and, after a year of negotiations, Calera moved from single-member districts to an at-large election system for the City Council. Montgomery was easily elected under the new system, winning the largest number of votes of any candidate, while his opponent from 2008 received the second-fewest. After the two elections, “I realized how important Section 5 is,” Montgomery said.
If it hadn’t been for Section 5, there would be no black members of the city council in Calera. “Assuming I accept your premise…that some portions of the South have changed, your county pretty much hasn’t,” Justice Sotomayor told Rein.
Mr. Montgomery and a large delegation of voting rights activists from Alabama attended the arguments. “Things have gotten a lot better and the reason it has gotten better is because of legislation like Section 5,” he told me after. “We definitely feel it’s still needed. We don’t claim the playing field has leveled. It’s leveling. Eventually maybe we’ll get to the point where Section 5 is not needed, but we’re not there yet.”