The supreme law of the land is in jeopardy.
On Feb. 27, the nine justices of the Supreme Court heard testimony for Shelby County v. Holder, a landmark case focusing on one of the nation’s most powerful civil rights laws: The Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Aimed at bettering the United States of minority voting discrimination, the act in effect protects the inherent rights guaranteed by the 15th Amendment to all citizens by providing them with legal ammunition against injustices and disfranchisement as was common in 1965.
However, claims from the petitioner of this case – Shelby County, Ala. – call for a judicial intervention, not for the law as a whole, but rather in regards to Section 5 of the law, which grants the federal government rights to “preclearance.”
Through this clause, the Federal government requires select states and counties where there are “dire local conditions” of discriminatory practices to receive federal approval before altering their elections, with these requests ranging from moving a polling place to implementing stricter voter identification regulations. This list includes all of Alabama.
In the end, this section seeks to move the legal burden from victims of this discrimination and place it on the perpetrators plate, granting us individual rights.
Proponents of this section’s dissolution lead to a formula that is used in the identification of single entities for inclusion in the “Section 5 Covered Jurisdictions” as being outdated as well as being a gross overstep of federal powers, infringing upon inherent states rights guaranteed to them by the 10th Amendment.
Admittedly, in 2006 when Congress renewed The Voting Rights Act, the House and Senate missed a vital opportunity to update the formula, and instead reaffirmed the act in its current state, allowing a formula to persist that continues to utilize data from 1965.
However, it has to be taken into consideration that whatever formula was used, the same set of states and counties would be included in the pool, and this reenactment faced no criticism in Congress, even after both chambers heard from 90 witnesses, went through a 15,000 page document, and had 21 hearings on the subject. The House voted overwhelmingly in favor of the re-authorization while the Senate was completely unanimous on the subject.
After all of this research, one thing obviously remained clear to both parties in Congress: there was still a need for this law in 2006 and there remains a need today.
Spencer Overton, professor of law at George Washington University, attested to this and said, “What they (Congress) found [in 2006] was that even though the covered jurisdictions only account for 25 percent of the population, they produced 80 percent of the voting rights cases that were successful, where discrimination was shown. They also found that there was extreme white block voting, that it was twice as likely in covered jurisdictions as uncovered jurisdictions.”
Even in the case of Shelby County, this current need is easily visible.
You see, in order to be taken off of the Section 5 list, all an identified jurisdiction needs to do is maintain a clean record of 10 years without Justice Department objections, something Shelby County does not meet. Rather, the municipality known as Calera in the county was caught knowingly trying to redistrict Ernest Montgomery, a black city councilor, out of his seat in 2008.
Without Section 5, this redistricting could have gone unnoticed and Councilor Montgomery would have been out of a job. The only reason Section 5 works so well is that it deters possible violations before they even start up in these particular jurisdictions, and when they do pop up anyway, it allows prompt and effective management of the situations.
And if nowhere else, Section 5 is necessary to protect a new and upcoming minority, especially in Shelby County where we find the largest growing population of Hispanic voters (up 297 percent since 2000) in Alabama – a state that already verges on racial profiling and injustices with this population.
In effect, a Supreme Court ruling opposing this reenactment would fringe on judicial intervention in congressional matters, a drastic power play by the courts that should not be supported. The branches need to remain separate to maintain the balance of powers, and Congress’s background on this case seems to be more than adequate to make a judgment call such as they did in 2006.
The supreme law of the land is in jeopardy, as are our rights.
Maxton Thoman is a freshman majoring in biology. His column runs weekly.
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