Even as he expressed his deep disappointment over the Supreme Court’s gutting of the Voting Rights Act, Attorney General Eric Holder tried on Tuesday to sound determined and optimistic. “The Department of Justice will continue to carefully monitor jurisdictions around the country for voting changes that may hamper voting rights,” he said, noting that only “part” of the landmark 1965 law was struck down.
Which is a little like saying that the heart is only part of the body. For if there is one thing observers were unanimous about in reacting to the justices’ 5-4 decision, it was that it struck at the core of the legislation, declaring that the formula used to determine which states and political jurisdictions need federal approval to change their voting procedures is based on outdated information about “literacy tests” and sparse voter turnout from decades ago.
In practical terms, the decision means that whoever succeeds Thomas E. Perez as the Assistant Attorney General in charge of the Civil Rights Division (assuming Perez eventually wins Senate confirmation as Labor Secretary) will have far less power in pursuing voter-discrimination cases, unless Congress acts to fill the void left by the justices. Holder acknowledged that reality when he said, ” I am hopeful that new protections can and will pass in this session of Congress.”
“A devastating setback for civil rights in America,” the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law called the decision in <em>Shelby County v. Holder.
“Civil rights and civic organization must now unite with the American people — fighting new discriminatory voting laws lawsuit by lawsuit and state by state — until Congress acts decisively to repair what has been one of the most effective civil rights laws ever passed,” said Barbara Arnwine, the organization’s president and executive director.
But given the current climate on Capitol Hill, with a Republican-controlled House and a Democratic Senate, who would be so reckless as to predict quick action on a new formula for assessing voter discrimination, with the lawmakers already preoccupied with immigration, the national debt and other weighty issues, like their re-election prospects for 2014?
The Lawyers’ Committee’s chief counsel, Jon Greenbaum, said the high court’s decision “has effectively gutted one of the nation’s most important and effective civil rights laws.” Minority voters in some areas are at more risk than they have been in decades of being deprived of their right to vote, Greenbaum said, declaring the ruling no less than “a blow to democracy.”
As The New York Times reported, “The decision will have immediate practical consequences. Changes in voting procedures that had required advance federal approval, including voter identification laws and restrictions on early voting, will now be subject only to after-the-fact litigation.”
The justices in the majority, and those who hoped for Tuesday’s outcome, said the country has changed tremendously in a half-century, rendering the formula section of the Voting Rights Act obsolete. Dissenters, on the Supreme Court and in the nation, argued that there is still more to do to attain racial justice, and that the Voting Rights Act helped to bring about the very change the majority applauds.
Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), who was clubbed on the head by an Alabama policeman during a civil rights march in 1965, denounced Tuesday’s ruling as “a dagger into the heart” of the voting rights statute.
“These men never stood in unmovable lines,” Lewis said of the majority, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy, Clarence Thomas and Samuel A. Alito Jr. “They were never denied the right to participate in the democratic process. They were never beaten, jailed, run off their farms or fired from their jobs. No one they knew died simply trying to register to vote. They are not the victims of gerrymandering or contemporary unjust schemes to maneuver them out of their constitutional rights.”
“I am deeply concerned that Congress will not have the will to fix what the Supreme Court has broken,” Lewis said.
Furthermore, The New York Times’ observed, it is by no means certain that the other key section of the Voting Rights Act, calling for federal approval or “preclearance” for changing voting procedures, would survive another review by the Supreme Court.
Despite the dissenters’ bitter disappointment, it is too soon to place Shelby County v. Holder with Dred Scott, Korematsu and Plessy v. Ferguson in the Supreme Court’s unofficial Hall of Shame for rulings that put the tribunal on the wrong side of history. But the timing is a cruel coincidence for those who hoped for a different outcome.
As the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law notes, it is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, having been formed at the urging of President John F. Kennedy “to involve the private bar in providing legal services to address racial discrimination.” It was in 1963 that Kennedy told the country that civil rights was “a moral issue.”
On Tuesday, Sen. Patrick Leahy, the Vermont Democrat who heads the Senate Judiciary Committee, said he would call for “immediate action” on legislation to address the voting rights ruling. But it remains to be seen what “immediate action” will mean, especially in the Senate. It would be a nightmare for those wanting to fix the Voting Rights Act if their efforts were stalled by a Senate filibuster — just as effective civil rights legislation was stalled for decades in the last century by filibusters engineered by die-hard Southern segregationists, some of whom have courthouses named after them.