US Supreme Court to consider overturning vital achievement of Civil Rights Movement

| Published on November 11, 2012 at 6:42 am

Voting-Rights Law Gets Supreme Court Review

The Supreme Court will consider overturning a signal achievement of the civil rights movement, agreeing to hear a challenge to part of the 1965 Voting Rights Act in a case loaded with racial and political ramifications.

Acting three days after minority voters propelled President Barack Obama to re-election, the court Friday said it will review a provision that requires all or part of 16 mostly Southern states to get federal approval before changing their voting rules. Opponents say that “preclearance” provision is no longer warranted.

Affirmative action

With the justices already considering whether to roll back university affirmative action, the court’s current term is now a potential watershed for the legal rules governing race. Chief Justice John Roberts has questioned the constitutionality of the preclearance rule, which the Obama administration used this year to stop Republican-backed voter-identification laws in Texas and South Carolina from going into effect.

Powerful tool in Civil Rights Movement

Preclearance “has been one of the most powerful tools in the civil rights arsenal,” said Heather Gerken, a professor at Yale Law School who specializes in election and constitutional law. “It’s made more of a difference in improving the civil rights of African Americans than any other statute I can think of.”


The court will hear arguments early next year and rule before its term ends in late June. Justices Friday also agreed to decide whether states can collect DNA samples from anyone arrested for a serious crime.

The Voting Rights Act was enacted to combat discrimination that kept black people away from Southern polling places for generations. A separate section of the law bars voting discrimination nationwide and isn’t affected by the high court case.

Voting district lines

Under the preclearance requirement, a covered jurisdiction must seek approval from the Justice Department or a federal court before changing voting district lines, polling places or other aspects of the election system. The Justice Department has used the requirement, also known as Section 5, to object to more than 2,400 state and local voting changes since 1982.

In the case before the justices, Shelby County, Ala., objects to the law’s method for determining which states are subject to Section 5. The law uses a formula that relies on a state’s decades-old voting patterns and rules.

Deepest discrimination

The formula was designed to include the states with the deepest history of racial discrimination — Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Virginia. Three other states — Alaska, Arizona and Texas — were added in the 1970s when the statute was expanded to protect “language minority” groups.

Congress let some areas escape coverage if they can show compliance with anti-discrimination rules. Lawmakers also allowed judges to put other areas under the preclearance system.

Voter ID laws

Shelby County contends that when Congress reauthorized the Voting Rights Act in 2006, it lacked grounds for treating some states differently than others. The county says the voter-ID laws in Texas and South Carolina shouldn’t be judged under a tougher standard than those in non-covered states.

Voting Rights Act

The Obama administration urged the court not to take up the issue, saying a federal appeals court was correct in upholding the Voting Rights Act in the Shelby County case. The administration points to instances of intentional discrimination in covered states and to data it says show that those jurisdictions still need close monitoring.

Serious Constitutional Questions

A Supreme Court ruling in a 2009 case indicated that a majority of the nine justices may consider Section 5 to be outdated. Roberts wrote for the court that the provision raised “serious constitutional questions” because it applied only to some parts of the country. “We are now a very different nation” than in 1965, Roberts wrote.

The court avoided the constitutional question in that 2009 decision, instead reaching a compromise that made it easier for some local governments to seek an exemption from the preclearance rule.

Republicans engaged in voter suppression

Supporters of the Voting Rights Act say the 2012 election shows the law is still needed. Democrats and minority groups say Republicans engaged in voter suppression by imposing identification requirements and limiting early voting hours.

“At the time of the last case people wondered whether voting discrimination was still with us in the United States,” said Debo Adegbile, acting president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. “Today they know the answer is yes.”


Opponents of the preclearance requirement point to the election results as evidence the rule is now outdated.

“The America that elected and re-elected Barack Obama as its first African American president is far different than when the Voting Rights Act was first enacted in 1965,” said Edward Blum, who helped put the Shelby County lawsuit together as director of the Alexandria, Va.-based Project on Fair Representation. “Congress unwisely reauthorized a bill that is stuck in a Jim Crow-era time warp. It is unconstitutional.”

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US Supreme Court to consider overturning vital achievement of Civil Rights Movement

Voting-Rights Law Gets Supreme Court Review The Supreme Court will consider overturning a signal achievement of the civil rights movement, agreeing to hear a challenge to ...