Correction: A previous version of this editorial incorrectly described Reps. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) and John Lewis (D-Ga.) as leaders of the House Judiciary Committee. Mr. Lewis is not on the committee; Mr. Sensenbrenner is a subcommittee chairman but does not chair the full committee. The following version has been updated.
THE SUPREME Court in June blew a big hole in the Voting Rights Act. On Thursday, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. began to patch it up.
In a speech before the National Urban League, Mr. Holder pledged that the Justice Department would use all of the authorities it had left to protect minority voters against discriminatory election rules. That includes not only pursuing legal action against a slew of states and localities that have pressed forward with suspect election laws and procedures; Mr. Holder also announced that Justice would rebuild the “pre-clearance” system that used to require those states and localities to submit election rules changes for federal approval, a system the court essentially gutted. “My colleagues and I are determined to use every tool at our disposal to stand against such discrimination wherever it is found,” he said.
That’s good. But Mr. Holder’s worthwhile efforts don’t absolve Congress from acting, too.
In Texas, a coalition of civil rights groups and Democratic lawmakers is challenging the state’s redistricting plan, which looks like a scheme to undermine the election of minority representatives. Mr. Holder promised to support that lawsuit. Importantly, he also said that he will ask a federal judge to require Texas to get pre-clearance from Justice or a federal court for the next decade before changing its voting laws and procedures.
The Supreme Court did not quash the notion that a pre-clearance system — like that which existed for half a century before the justices’ ruling — is constitutional, just that Congress had used an out-of-date formula to determine which places the system would cover. Nor did the majority get rid of a provision that allows the Justice Department to ask federal judges to decide which jurisdictions have to go through pre-clearance, “bailing in” new ones with a recent history of discriminatory voting practices. If Mr. Holder uses these facts to effectively reinstate pre-clearance across many of the worst-offender jurisdictions, such as Texas, his efforts would be entirely consonant with the court’s ruling, and a win for civil rights.
Mr. Holder’s approach might be easier than other alternatives for pre-clearance critics to swallow, because federal courts, not the Obama administration or Congress, would be in charge. Judges will decide who should be subject to special scrutiny and for how long. They can also single out for attention specific measures, rather than a whole package of proposed voting changes, not all of which are always a problem. Critics will have a hard time claiming that civil rights rules and their enforcement are driven by partisan motives.
The very big drawback is that Mr. Holder’s strategy is scattershot, dependent on a collection of individual legal actions to bail in all the places that should see pre-clearance attention. That’s why the best solution is for Congress to repair the hole in the Voting Rights Act all at once, drafting a new pre-clearance coverage formula that the Supreme Court should accept. Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.), a member of the House Judiciary Committee, and Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) have already started. Their colleagues should support this bipartisan initiative and fix the Voting Rights Act as quickly as possible.
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