Arguments In Supreme Court over Voting Rights Act of 1965

Lyndon Johnson gives Martin Luther King a pen after signing the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Lyndon Johnson gives Martin Luther King a pen after signing the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Yesterday, on Wednesday, February 27, while President Obama and many other politicians honored civil rights icon Rosa Parks with a memorial statue in the U.S. Capitol, the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments about dismantling the 1965 Voting Rights Act.  Specifically under discussion was Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, which requires certain states (mostly in the South) with a documented history of discriminating against minority voters get permission from the Federal government to make any changes to its voting procedures. This measure was initially supposed to only be in effect for five years, but has been extended multiple times and expanded to help guarantee the rights of non-English speaking voters as well.

Why is this law, so integral to the Civil Rights movement and ensuring the civil liberties of black Americans (and many other minorities), being challenged now? Though there are a number of technical arguments concerning the fact that the law was extended largely on data from 1975, the principal argument seems to be that times have changed. Lawyers from Shelby County, Alabama, who have brought this case to the Supreme Court, argue that discriminatory voting procedures are no longer being practiced, and the states under the jurisdiction of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act are being unfairly punished and slandered.

Shelby lawyers argue that the increasing number of prominent minority politicians, and of course, the first black president, Barack Obama, are signs that the Voting Rights Act are no longer necessary. Statistics were read showing that the black voter turnout in Massachusetts (not covered under Section 5) is much lower than in Mississippi (covered under Section 5). While these facts are heartening, it’s hard not to notice that they don’t prove Section 5 is unnecessary as much as they prove that Section 5 is effective, and arguably, should be expanded. (Indeed, New York Times columnist Charles Blow argues that Section 5 should be expanded far beyond the states it currently covers, both to ensure to fair voting practices for every citizen and also to puncture the argument that Section 5 puts an unfair stigma on the covered states.)

Furthermore, there is plenty of evidence that voter suppression tactics continue today. As author David Aretha points out in his book Selma and the Voting Rights Act, the presidential elections in 2000 and 2004 both raised questions over whether there was an effort to disenfranchise voters (in Florida in 2000, and Ohio in 2004). There were numerous reports of voter suppression efforts during the 2012 election. And Shelby County, Alabama, the county bringing this case to the Supreme Court, had its own voting rights scandal in 2008 when the federal government demanded the state alter it’s district policies to ensure that minority voters were properly represented.

Still, many of the Supreme Court justices seemed amenable to arguments that the Voting Rights Act’s time had passed. One of the most heated moments of the hearing came when Justice Antonin Scalia remarked that the law’s continued usage was a “perpetuation of racial entitlement.” This prompted Justice Sonia Sotomayor to later pointedly ask  “Do you think that the right to vote is a racial entitlement?”

Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor

Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor

Though a decision on this case likely won’t be made for some time, this case illustrates vividly that the fight for Civil Rights, fought so hard by Martin Luther King Jr. and millions of others, is far from over.

To learn more about the Civil Rights Movement and the struggle to pass the Voting Rights Act, check out Selma and the Voting Rights Act by David Aretha (ISBN# 978-1-59935-056-1) from your local library, or purchase it and other titles in the acclaimed Civil Rights Movement series from Morgan Reynolds Publishing. Or get Supreme Court Justices: Sonia Sotomayor by Sandra Shichtman (ISBN# 978-1-59935-156-8) to learn more about the Justice, and be sure to check out Morgan Reynolds Publishing’s Supreme Court Justices series to learn about many prominent figures in the High Court’s history.

-Josh Barrer

Associate Editor

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