A Skeptical Court Hears Voting Rights Act Case

30 04 2009

Yesterday, a skeptical U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments on the constitutionality of a key provision of the Voting Rights Act that requires certain states and localities with a history of voting discrimination submit changes in voting procedures, or gain “pre-clearance,” by the federal government for approval.

The case involves a municipal utility district in Texas that wants to sidestep needing to comply with the provision because it claims the kind of discrimination that it once deterred no longer exists. Board member elections in the utility district require pre-clearance since the entire state of Texas falls under the jurisdiction of Section 5.

The case is called Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District No. 1 v. Holder.

Adam Liptak’s summary in the NYT of yesterday’s oral argument was spot on, especially his description of Justice Kennedy’s hostile line of questioning. And if his questioning is any indication, which in this case I think it is, Kennedy will likely write the majority or controlling opinion as he did in the Section 2 case earlier this year and erode much of Section 5, while of course noting that racial discrimination “is not ancient history.”

Perhaps, the real question here is how badly the Court will gut Section 5 and if it will introduce or demand that Congress create a more precise and less far reaching standard in determining which states and jurisdictions should be covered and why, even if in 2006 it reauthorized the Voting Rights Act only after it held 19 hearings and reviewed thousands of pages of testimony and documents.

Plus, a very curious exchange between Justice Scalia and Debo Aegbile from LDF during yesterday’s oral arguments.

Scalia actually suggested that simply because the VRA was cleared both chambers of Congress by wide margins, even if both houses and the Oval Office were controlled by Republicans at the time, we should be skeptical of its validity. In other words, we should be skeptical of the law, which has been reauthorized repeatedly by Congress, because it got too much support. Huh?

If we applied that same line of thinking to other laws enacted by Congress such as the American Disabilities Amendments Act that passed this fall and signed by a Republican president, then I suppose we should consider them invalid too. Or maybe we should consider the unanimous opinions like in Brown v. Board of Ed invalid because they also had too much support.

What happened to judicial modesty and due deference to legislative bodies that conservatives love to spout?

Here’s the exchange:

JUSTICE SCALIA: Mr. Adegbile, what was — I read it in the briefs, and I forget what it was. What was the vote on this 2006 extension — 98 to nothing in the Senate, and what was it in the House? Was –

MR. ADEGBILE: It was — it was 33 to 390, I believe.

JUSTICE SCALIA: 33 to 390. You know, the — the Israeli Supreme Court, the Sanhedrin, used to have a rule that if the death penalty was pronounced unanimously, it was invalid, because there must be something wrong there. Do you ever expect — do you ever seriously expect Congress to vote against a reextension of the Voting Rights Act? Do you really think that any incumbent would — would vote to do that?

MR. ADEGBILE: Well –

JUSTICE SCALIA: Twenty-five years from now? Fifty years from now? When?

MR. ADEGBILE: Justice Scalia, I think some members of Congress did of course vote against the Act.

JUSTICE SCALIA: Thirty-three members of the House and nobody in the Senate.

MR. ADEGBILE: Thirty-three members of the House, indeed. But I think the — the reason that they voted for it is what’s more important. Congress did not assume that section 5 was necessary. It took a very careful examination to see how it was operating, and the determination was that in the absence of section 5, because of the repetitive violations, because of 620 objections — there was evidence that approximately 60 percent of those show some evidence of intentional discrimination.

If you take away the prophylaxis, the discrimination will return in a way that we don’t need to revisit. The history has been that voting discrimination manifests itself through repetitive efforts and…..

Besides Texas, eight other states are covered by the provision, including Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, and South Carolina. Most of Virginia and parts of California, Florida, Michigan, New Hampshire, New York, North Carolina and South Dakota are also covered.

Congress passed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to eliminate discriminatory voting practices by state and local governments. The law has been renewed and amended several times since it was passed, most recently with a 25-year renewal in 2006 where it cleared the Senate by a 98-0 and the House 390-33.

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