Federal judge dismisses state challenge to voting rights law

[JURIST] A judge for the US District Court for the District of Columbia [official website] Wednesday dismissed a challenge to election monitoring under the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (VRA) [materials]. In a 151-page decision [opinion, PDF], Judge John Bates rejected the arguments of officials representing Shelby County, Alabama, together with a corps of conservative activists, who claimed it is no longer constitutionally justifiable to subject Alabama and certain other states to Section 5 [DOJ backgrounder] "preclearance" rules under the VRA. These rules require covered jurisdictions to clear changes in voting districts, polling places and other electoral processes with the Department of Justice (DOJ) [official website] or federal courts. Section 5 relies heavily on patterns of past discrimination to determine which state, county and local governments must obtain preclearance for election changes. After reviewing 15,000 pages of records supporting the 25-year extension of the VRA passed by Congress in 2006, Bates concluded that the modern existence of intentional racial discrimination in voting does in fact justify the 2006 reauthorization of the preclearance requirements:

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. Understanding the preeminent constitutional role of Congress under the Fifteenth Amendment to determine the legislation needed to enforce it, and the caution required of the federal courts when undertaking the "grave" and "delicate" responsibility of judging the constitutionality of such legislation—particularly where the right to vote and racial discrimination intersect—this Court declines to overturn Congress's carefully considered judgment.
The VRA was enacted to put an end to the systematic disenfranchisement of minority voters that ran rampant in Southern districts in the 1960s. According to a public DOJ list [materials], currently nine whole states and many individual counties and municipalities are Section 5 Covered Jurisdictions. The Senate extended the act [NYT report] in 2006 by an overwhelming 98-0 vote.

The Arizona Attorney General [official website] filed a similar suit [JURIST report] in August seeking to enjoin enforcement of the Section 5 rules in that state. In 2009, the US Supreme Court [official website] upheld [opinion, PDF; JURIST report] the Section 5 provisions of the VRA in Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District Number One v. Holder [Cornell LII backgrounder]. The court voted 8-1 in favor of permitting the appellant municipality to "bail out" from the preclearance requirement if it can establish a history of compliance with the VRA, but declined to rule on the constitutionality of the 25-year extension of the act. Writing for the majority, Chief Justice John Roberts opined that "things have changed in the South," observing that "[b]latantly discriminatory evasions of federal decrees are rare." The plaintiff was a municipal utility district in Texas that wanted to be exempted from the requirement and was challenging the most recent extension generally. At their enactment in 1965, the requirements were only supposed to be in place for five years. Section 5 has since been extended several times.

 

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