County awaits ruling in voting rights challenge

Published 5:52 pm Wednesday, February 2, 2011

By BRAD GASKINS / Staff Writer

Shelby County Attorney Frank “Butch” Ellis spent some of Wednesday afternoon enjoying some leisurely sightseeing in Washington, D.C, which stood in stark contrast to what he was doing hours earlier.

Earlier in the day, Ellis and Shelby County were in a federal courtroom and in the national spotlight as a federal judge heard oral arguments in the county’s lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of certain portions of the Voting Rights Act.

The county’s challenge concerns sections 4(b) and 5 of the Voting Rights Act, which forbids cities and towns in nine states, including Alabama, from making any changes in voting practices or procedures without approval from the federal government.

U.S. District Judge John Bates did not make a decision in the case.

“He said he would probably be out about two months before he can get an order out,” Shelby County Attorney Frank “Butch” Ellis said. “We’re going to be on hold now probably until the end of March, first of April.”

Overall, Ellis said oral arguments went “very well.” He said he was not surprised by anything that happened during the arguments.

Ellis said Bates “asked a lot of questions, but of course you couldn’t tell from his questions anything about how he was leaning,” Ellis said of Bates. “He asked searching questions.”

Shelby County’s lawsuit is being paid for by the Project on Fair Representation, a not-for-profit legal defense fund.

Wiley Rein, a Washington-based law firm, is arguing the case for the county.

“Prospects are excellent” for the case to end up before the U.S. Supreme Court, regardless of Bates’ decision, Ellis said.

Ellis said the Supreme Court’s 2009 decision in Northwest Austin Utility District v. Holder “went out of its way to the open the door for a final resolution of the issue of whether section 4(b) and 5 were reauthorized by Congress” without enough current evidence.

The NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund disagreed.

“Although Shelby County argued that Section 5 is no longer necessary, today’s hearing demonstrated that a compelling and detailed legislative record led Congress to conclude otherwise,” read an LDF press release. “Although there have been improvements, Section 5 remains appropriate because of persistent and ongoing voting discrimination.”