Conservative activists and Republican attorneys general have launched a series of lawsuits meant to challenge the most muscular provision of the Voting Rights Act 0f 1965 before a Supreme Court that has signaled it is suspicious of its constitutionality.
Working their way to the high court are lawsuits from Arizona to North Carolina, challenging Section 5 of the historic civil rights act. The provision requires states and localities with a history of discrimination to get federal approval of any changes in their voting laws.
(J. Scott Applewhite/AP) - The U.S. Supreme Court Building is seen in Washington, Wednesday, Jan. 25, 2012. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
The combination of skeptical justices and an increasingly partisan political environment has led some experts to predict that the end is near for that requirement, which civil rights groups have called the most effective weapon for eliminating voting discrimination.
The Supreme Court’s recent actions “have indicated that Section 5 is living on borrowed time,” Columbia University law professor Nathaniel Persily told the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights last week. “Assuming the personnel on the court remains constant, the question is not whether the court will declare Section 5 unconstitutional, but when and how.”
The lawsuits are defending redistricting and a variety of new laws and electoral changes — including controversial requirements that voters show IDs at the polls — that Democrats and minorities charge will dilute minority rights.
The Supreme Court, in a 2009 ruling and again last month, expressed concern about “serious constitutional questions raised by Section 5’s intrusion on state sovereignty.”
The justices sidestepped that question in the most recent action challenging the law’s 2006 reauthorization. But the new lawsuits offer the court a variety of ways to consider the overriding issue — whether special protections enacted during the darkest days of the civil rights struggle are still required in a country that has elected its first black president.
“It’s really a full-court press to get this before the Supreme Court as soon as possible,” said Richard L. Hasen, an election-law specialist at the University of California at Irvine School of Law.
Rewriting voting laws
The upcoming elections underscore the urgency. At issue are voting law changes in areas covered by Section 5 — nine states, mostly in the South, and parts of seven others. Those southern state legislatures and governor’s offices are dominated by Republicans, and are rewriting voting laws and drawing once-a-decade maps for legislative and congressional districts.
Section 2 of the VRA applies nationwide, and it forbids any practice that denies or restricts voting rights “on account of race or color.” Section 5 poses additional restrictions on states with histories of discrimination, requiring any electoral change be approved by either the attorney general or federal judges in Washington to ensure the change neither “has the purpose nor will have the effect of denying or abridging the right to vote on account of race or color.”
Attorney General Eric Holder in three speeches since December has warned that his department will be vigilant.