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The Power of Now
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(Washington, D.C.) Today, Debo P. Adegbile of the NAACP Legal and Educational Defense Fund, Inc. (LDF) presented oral argument on behalf of defendant-intervenors in the Supreme Court in Shelby County, Alabama v. Holder, one of the most important civil rights cases in a generation. Shelby County seeks to destroy the core of the Voting Rights Act, by removing a provision that requires states and jurisdictions with the worst histories of voting discrimination, such as Alabama, to have all voting changes reviewed by the U.S. Department of Justice or the D.C. District Court to ensure they are free from discrimination. This provision of the Act, known as Section 5, puts the burden of ending voting discrimination on cities, towns and states, rather than on the victims of discrimination. For this reason the Voting Rights Act has widely been regarded as one of the greatest pieces of civil rights legislation ever enacted. United States Solicitor General Donald Verrilli presented oral argument on behalf of the United States.
“Our nation has made progress in ensuring the right of every person to vote – in large part because of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. But we still have a long way to go. We should continue to demand more progress, not less,” said Sherrilyn Ifill, President and Director-Counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. “We still have blatant and subtle impediments to voters -- sudden polling place changes to locations outside the community, cutbacks in early voting, canceling elections just as blacks obtain voting strength, gerrymandered districts, and many other obstacles that prevent African Americans, Latinos, Native Americans and Asian Americans from voting. We cannot today declare ‘Mission Accomplished’. We fully expect the Court to uphold this watershed law.”
Today's oral argument was attended by, among others, Cecilia Marshall, the widow of former Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, Martin Luther King III, civil rights leaders including Wade Henderson, Ben Jealous, and Rev. Jesse Jackson, and numerous members of Congress, including Representatives John Lewis, James Clyburn, Melvin Watt, and Marcia Fudge.
In the face of substantial evidence showing continued efforts to discriminate against minority voters, Section 5 was reauthorized by an overwhelming bi-partisan majority of Congress in 2006. In fact, not one single United States Senator voted against reauthorizing Section 5. More recently, in a 2009 case argued by LDF, Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District No.1 v. Holder, the Supreme Court issued an 8-1 ruling that left Section 5’s important protections intact.
“No law in our nation’s history has enforced our Constitution’s promise of equality more effectively than the Voting Rights Act. It is both constitutional and logical to target the areas with the worst records of continuing voting discrimination,” said Adegbile, NAACP LDF’s Special Counsel, who defended the VRA before the Supreme Court today, as well as the last time Section 5 was challenged.
“The evidence shows that the most intense pattern of voting discrimination remains concentrated to a remarkable degree in those places reached by the preclearance provision. Nothing in the Constitution, precedent or common sense requires that these serious threats to minority voters now be left unchecked. Section 5 shines a light in the dark rooms where plans are hatched to block the will of the voters. It is the most powerful defense we have against both brazen and subtle efforts to take away or narrow the right to vote. This essential law protects our democracy and the liberty and dignity of all citizens to fully participate in American life,” continued Adegbile.
At oral argument, the U.S. Solicitor General stressed the Supreme Court’s long line of cases upholding the constitutionality of the Voting Rights Act four times over four decades, Congress’s virtually unprecedented legislative record consisting of 15,000 pages of evidence showing the VRA’s continuing necessity, and the experiences of voters in Shelby County and millions of others across the country. Between 1982 and 2006, Section 5 blocked more than 1,000 discriminatory voting changes from going into effect.
"We were encouraged by today's argument and look forward to the Court's decision," Ifill commented afterwards. "We were heartened to see a number of Justices acknowledge ongoing voter discrimination in Alabama and the other affected areas," Adegbile added.
They also pointed to several noteworthy comments from the bench. In addition to Justice Sotomayor's admonition to Shelby County's counsel that "your county is the epitome of why Section 5 was enacted," Justice Kennedy also questioned how Shelby County was injured by the coverage provision.
Although the places covered by Section 5 comprise less than 25 percent of the country’s overall population, they account for more than 80 percent of cases in which favorable outcomes were obtained for voters of color under Section 2 of Voting Rights Act, an important provision that applies nationwide. Therefore, on a per capita basis, there are 12 times as many successful Section 2 cases occurring in the covered jurisdictions compared to non-covered jurisdictions.
LDF represents five Black ministers from Shelby County and Councilman Ernest Montgomery. In 2008, the City of Calera, which lies within Shelby County, enacted a discriminatory redistricting plan that was rejected by the Department of Justice under Section 5, leading to the loss of the city’s sole Black councilman, Mr. Montgomery. Because of Section 5, however, the Department of Justice required Calera to redraw its electoral boundaries in a nondiscriminatory manner and conduct another election in which Mr. Montgomery regained his seat.