A potential Supreme Court change in the Voting Rights Act of 1965 could be one of the most emotional moments in what will be a high-profile month for the nation’s highest court.
LBJ signs Voting Rights Act
The court heard arguments in February in the case of Shelby County v. Holder and is considering striking down a critical part of the historic act.
Shelby County, Alabama, filed suit in district court, claiming that Section 5 and Section 4(b) of the Voting Rights Act are unconstitutional. Two courts then ruled that those sections were constitutional.
The decision could come as soon as this Monday, as the court has at least six major cases to announce with just three announcement days left in June.
In anticipation of the decision, a group of black leaders, including members of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and Nation of Islam head Louis Farrakhan, plan a caravan in Alabama on June 14 that will include stops in Birmingham, Montgomery, and Selma.
Section 5 prohibits selected districts and states from changing to their election laws and procedures without getting official approval from the federal government. Section 4(b) defines the districts as having had a voting test in place as of November 1, 1964 with less than 50 percent turnout for the 1964 presidential election.
During those February hearings, the conservative majority of the Supreme Court didn’t appear to be swayed by arguments by the Obama administration to keep the “preclearance” requirement in Section 5 of the law.
That provision requires all or parts of 16 states, including virtually the entire Southern region of the United States, to get Justice Department approval before changing election districts, voting rules, and polling locations.
Among those in attendance when the original act was signed in 1965 were Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rosa Parks. At this February’s hearing, Representative John Lewis, the Reverend Jesse Jackson, and Reverend Al Sharpton attended.
Section 5 made headlines in 2012 when the Justice Department used it to block voter ID laws in Texas and South Carolina, two states that were under the preclearance doctrine.
In the past two decades, Justice Department officials have used Section 5 to block more than 2,000 proposed voting changes in the preclearance states.
Back in February, Chief Justice John Roberts and Associate Justice Anthony Kennedy seemed skeptical that Section 5 was relevant in today’s world, as the law was written in 1965.
One issue was the use of data from the 1970s to set requirements for Section 5; another was the argument that racial conditions have changed greatly since 1965, and preclearance isn’t needed.
If part of the law is ruled unconstitutional and sent back to Congress to be changed, the preclearance requirement could face tough odds of returning in a revised law.
Another key part of the Voting Rights Act wasn’t under consideration in February: Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 prohibits voting practices or procedures that discriminate on the basis of race, color, or membership in a minority group.
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