U.S. Rep. John Lewis, a leader of the Civil Rights protests that gave birth to the 1965 Voting Rights Act, sat in the chambers of the U.S. Supreme Court this morning to listen to justices debate whether to continue the act’s most basic provisions.
“It reminded me of some of the same debate of 1965,” Lewis told my AJC colleague Bob Keefe afterwards. “This Act is one of the most progressive pieces of legislation the country ever passed, and it changed America forever. We don’t need to go back.”
The case of Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District Number One v. Holder challenges the constitutionality of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, which requires federal approval for any change in election law in nine states, including Texas and Georgia, and parts of seven others.
Lewis, an African-American and Democrat, has filed an amicus brief in the case. So, too, has Gov. Sonny Perdue. But Perdue, a Republican, says racial progress here and throughout the country has made the Section 5 provision of the VRA outdated.
Keefe — he was there, too — said that in arguments, questions from the high court’s conservative judges indicated they were giving the passage of time serious weight.
Chief Justice John Roberts, a George W. Bush appointee, questioned whether the voting rights rule was trying to do something that may not really be needed anymore, comparing it to an “elephant whistle.”
“You know, I have this whistle to keep away the elephants,” Roberts said rhetorically. “Well, there are no elephants, so it must work.”
Justice Anthony Kennedy, a Ronald Reagan appointee who often is a swing vote on decisions on social issues, questioned whether states famous for opposition to desegregation — particularly in the South — should continued to be singled out.
“Congress has made the finding that the sovereignty of Georgia is less than the sovereign dignity of Ohio,” he said.
Others, however, said that while voter discrimination has declined, it’s still a problem.
Justice David Souter, a George H.W. Bush appointee who typically is among the Court’s more liberal members, rattled off a list of what he characterized as evidence of discrimination – including a 16-point difference in Hispanic and non-Hispanic voter registration in Texas and 600 lawsuits throughout the country alleging voter discrimination.
“I don’t understand, with a record like that, how you can maintain as a basis for this suit that things have radically changed,” Souter said to attorney Gregory Coleman, who brought the case on behalf of the Texas utility district. “They may be better. But to say that they have radically changed … (is) to deny the empirical reality.”
The tiny utility district in the middle of Texas hasn’t done anything wrong. Opponents to Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act and racial classifications in employment convinced the district to become part of the case shortly after Congress reauthorized Section 5 for another 25 years back in 2006.
If the provision is struck down, it could weaken the argument for race-based decisions on voting, employment and education. It could also allow states and smaller governmental bodies to change their voting laws more freely to help incumbents and others.
Opponents say it also could lead to gerrymandering and fewer elected minorities.
“We know where this will lead – we have see what can happen” without the act, said John Payton, president and director of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund.
Added Lewis: “Discrimination is still real in the political process.”
Reaction on the GOP side was decidedly different. U.S. Rep. Lynn Westmoreland was a leader of the movement among conservative House Republicans in 2006 to reject renewal of the act.
Said Westmoreland in a just-released statement:
“I couldn’t have been happier than I was today to hear the justices shred the flimsy arguments the House made when renewing this out-of-date legislation for 25 more years.
In short, Congress failed in its duties in 2006. It refused at every turn to modernize a 41-year-old law to reflect today’s realities of social and racial progress, of demographic changes in covered and non-covered jurisdictions and of the steady and amazing advancement in state’s like Georgia, where we have four African-American members of Congress and numerous African-Americans elected to statewide office with many white votes.
“I have great hope today that the Supreme Court will bring much needed change to Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. I want to thank Justice Scalia for pointing out how ridiculous is the argument that wide support in Congress demonstrates the need for a 25-year renewal. In today’s climate, a yes vote wasn’t a profile in courage; it was a profile in political expediency.”
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