For the second time in the past year, a federal court in Washington D.C. has upheld the constitutionality of the heart of the 2006 reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act, making the likely challenge before the Roberts Court all the more important.
Shelby County, Alabama v. Holder involved a direct challenge to Section 5′s “preclearance” of the VRA which requires states and jurisdictions with histories of racial discrimination in voting have all voting law changes either reviewed by the Department of Justice or the D.C. District Court before going into effect to make sure they are nondiscriminatory. In 2006 the city of Calera, Alabama enacted a discriminatory redistricting plan without complying with Section 5. The result is that the city lost its lone African-American councilman, Ernest Montgomery.
When the redistricting plan was challenge as a violation of the VRA Shelby County (a largely white suburb of Birmingham) filed suit in federal court asking that Section 5 of the VRA be declared unconstitutional.
The Shelby County case confronted the fundamental question of what legal standard should be used to determine whether, as Shelby County claimed, Congress had exceeded its authority in reauthorizing Section 5 for 25 years in 2006. Shelby County invoked recent Supreme Court holdings that, at least as to certain Fourteenth Amendment legislation, “[t]here must be a congruence and proportionality between the injury to be prevented or remedied and the means adopted to that end.” In so doing, the County proposed a standard that would effectively preclude Congress from renewing effective anti-discrimination laws. The United States and defendant-intervenors (represented by civil rights organizations and law firms, including the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, the ACLU, and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund) argued that, in its prior rulings in 1966 and 1980 upholding Section 5, the Supreme Court held that Congress may “use any rational means to effectuate the constitutional prohibition of racial discrimination in voting.”
At the trial court level the court concluded that “congruence and proportionality” should be applied in this case, but that this articulation of the legal standard and the Supreme Court’s prior articulations all are part and parcel of the same basic legal standard. Therefore, the court held, under this standard, the judiciary owes substantial deference to Congress’ determinations in enacting and reauthorizing Section 5, since Section 5 protects a fundamental right and prevents discrimination based on a constitutionally suspect classification.
The court then undertook a detailed review of the legislative record Congress compiled in 2005 and 2006, comprising more than 15,000 pages of “statistics, findings by courts and the Justice Department, and first-hand accounts of discrimination.” and concluded that Congress had appropriately determined that “voting discrimination by covered jurisdictions had continued into the 21st century, and that the protections of Section 5 were still needed to safeguard racial and language minority voters.” It also concluded that Congress had appropriately determined that Section 5’s geographic coverage remains sufficiently related to the nature and scope of voting discrimination in this country.
In making these findings, the court rejected Shelby County’s arguments that would have placed impossibly-high evidentiary hurdles in Congress’ path to renewing almost any civil rights law. For example, the County made the extreme claim that Congress only could reauthorize Section 5 if current conditions mirrored the situation that existed in 1965, when Southern states were effectively barring most African-Americans from registering and voting.
Instead, the court found that Congress acted well within its constitutional authority when it examined the full breadth of recent voting discrimination, including voting changes aimed at diluting the voting strength of minority citizens who are able to register and vote. This is especially significant in light of the spat of discriminatory gerrymandering and voter ID legislation so popular in Republican-controlled state legislatures.
Lastly the trial court rejected the claim that Section 5’s coverage formula may be suspect because it relies on electoral conditions that existed in 1964, 1968, and 1972. As the court explained “the election data from those years . . . served only as a proxy for identifying those jurisdictions that had a long, open, and notorious history of disenfranchising minority citizens and diluting their voting strength whenever they did manage to register and cast ballots.” It concluded that limiting Section 5 to these jurisdictions – in the context of extensive legislative evidence that voting discrimination in these jurisdictions is continuing – is “[p]erhaps the most significant way” in which Congress sought to ensure that Section 5 remains a congruent and proportional remedy.
Much like the legal history of the Proposition 8 challenges, these are judicial opinions written with a specific eye toward Supreme Court review. And the appellate court took notice, affirming the record and the substance of the findings in a strong embrace of the expansive voting rights.
Racial discrimination in voting is “one of the gravest evils that Congress can seek to redress,” Judge David Tatel wrote in his ruling upholding the constitutionality of the Voting Rights Act, and at least one section of the federal judiciary intends to make sure those remedies remain in place.
Photo from kristin_a via flickr.