Supreme Court to hear Voting Rights Act challenge

George E. Curry | NNPA | 11/14/2012, 5 p.m.

WASHINGTON, D.C.--After hearing oral arguments earlier on whether an affirmative action program at the University of Texas is constitutional, the United States Supreme Court has agreed to review a challenge to the Voting Rights Act of 1965, paving the way for the court to rule on two major civil rights issues by next summer.

The court agreed last Friday to hear a case from Shelby County, Ala., 23 miles southeast of Birmingham, that questions whether Congress exceeded its authority when it voted in 2006 to renew Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, which requires jurisdictions covered by the legislation to pre-clear any election law changes with the U.S. attorney general or the U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., to prevent discriminatory voting changes from going into effect.

Oral arguments in the voting case are expected to be held in February with rulings in both the voting rights and affirmative cases likely to be announced next summer, probably in July. Two lower courts upheld the constitutionality of the Voting Rights Act extension before the Supreme Court decided to accept the case for review.

The Voting Rights Act was originally passed in 1965 on the heels of the Selma-to-Montgomery (Alabama) March. When Section 5 was scheduled to expire, it was extended by Congress in 1970, 1975, 1982 and for another 25 years in 2006. It was approved the last time with broad bipartisan support. It passed the House by a 390-33 margin and the Senate 98-0. George W. Bush signed the extension in a Rose Garden ceremony attended by members of the Congressional Black Caucus.

In its petition, Shelby County, the fastest growing county in Alabama, argued that the pre-clearance provision of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act violates the 10th Amendment and Article IV of the United States Constitution. Both provisions grant states power to regulate its elections. In passing the law, Congress relied on the 15th Amendment which prohibits states from denying a citizen the right to vote based on race, color, or previous condition of servitude such as slavery.

Shelby County went to court after the Justice Department rejected a redistricting plan that apparently played a role in the defeat of Ernest Montgomery, the only Black member of the five-member City Council in Calera, Ala., a bedroom community of 12,000 people.

Montgomery was elected to the Council in 2004 from a district that was nearly 71 percent Black. The district was redrawn two years later, reducing the Black presence to 23 percent. Montgomery narrowly lost his 2008 re-election bid to a White challenger, but the Justice Department invalidated the election because district changes had not been pre-cleared. Shelby County went to court to overturn the decision.
The 1965 Voting Rights Act created federal oversight of elections in Alabama and other states and jurisdictions with a history of discriminatory voting practices.

"Things have changed in the South," the Shelby County petition argued. "Voter turnout and registration rate now approach parity. Blatantly discriminatory evasions of federal decrees are rare. And minority candidates hold office at unprecedented levels." The county charged that the federal government is still relying on data more than 35 years old and "it fails to account for current political conditions."