Federal Court Upholds Constitutionality of Key Provision of the Voting Rights Act

Courts 09.23,11

Earlier this week, U.S. District Judge John Bates upheld the constitutionality of a key provision of the Voting Rights Act (VRA) in a case brought by Shelby County, Alabama.

Last year, Shelby County (a largely White suburb of Birmingham) filed suit in federal court arguing that Congress had no constitutional authority to reauthorize Section 5 of the VRA in 2006 because the widespread discrimination of the Jim Crow era is over. Section 5 requires certain states and localities to submit changes in voting to the Department of Justice or a federal court to ensure the changes do not have a discriminatory purpose or effect on minority voting power.

However, the court found that “despite the effectiveness of Section 5 in deterring unconstitutional voting discrimination since 1965, Congress in 2006 found that voting discrimination by covered jurisdictions had continued into the 21st century, and that the protections of Section 5 were still needed to safeguard racial and language minority voters.”

“Judge Bates’ ruling preserves the effectiveness of the Voting Rights Act, which has been and will continue to be our country’s most important means for preserving the right to vote and preventing discrimination in the electoral process,” said John Nonna, a Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law board member, partner at Dewey & LeBoeuf LLP, and co-counsel for Bobby Lee Harris, a defendant in the case.

A number of civil rights groups, including the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (NAACPLDF) and the Lawyers’ Committee filed amicus briefs in support of Congress’ reauthorization of Section 5 showing that voter discrimination still persists in Alabama and in other jurisdictions.

Originally passed in 1965, Congress has reauthorized the VRA five times, most recently in 2006. During the 2006 reauthorization of the VRA, Congress conducted over 20 hearings, heard from over 50 expert witnesses, and collected over 17,000 pages of testimony documenting the continued need for and constitutionality of the statute.  A coalition of civil and human rights groups, RenewtheVRA.org, commissioned and submitted for the congressional record reports on continued voting discrimination in all of the states covered by Section 5 and the other expiring provisions, including Alabama.

This case, Shelby County, Alabama v. Holder, is the second case to challenge the constitutionality of the 2006 reauthorization of Section 5. In June 2009, the Supreme Court ruled in Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District No. 1 v. Holder that all individual jurisdictions should have the opportunity to bail out of Section 5 coverage. However, the Court did not rule on the constitutionality of Section 5 itself.

“Our experience since the 2006 reauthorization has been characterized by serial efforts to  declare the core of the Voting Rights Act unconstitutional, and widespread efforts by states covered by Section 5 to make full political participation more difficult for minority voters,” said Ryan Haygood, director of the NAACPLDF’s Political Participation Group. “It must seem strange to the average person that we face repeated attacks on the Voting Rights Act in court, even as efforts to narrow voting opportunities with all the markers of intentional discrimination proliferate and threaten to undermine our vigorous commitment to an inclusive democracy.”