PFR director: Shelby County ‘punished for sins’ of forefathers

By BRAD GASKINS / Staff Writer

COLUMBIANA – Shelby County shouldn’t be held responsible for the transgressions of its forefathers, the director of the Project on Fair Representation said in a Friday afternoon phone interview.

Edward Blum also praised the county for challenging the constitutionality of Sections 4(b) and 5 of the Voting Rights Act.

“The County Commission and the officials of Shelby County were very judicious and far-sighted in recognizing that not only was Shelby County being punished for sins of their grandfathers or in some cases great-grandfathers, but the entire state of Alabama was being punished, as well as most of the Deep South,” Blum said.

“Courageous? Perhaps,” he continued. “But I think they were trendsetters in recognizing that this law was really no longer necessary for Shelby County and all of Alabama.”

Blum emphasized that he doesn’t provide legal counsel to Shelby County and can’t speak for the county. He made his comments, he said, as the person responsible for providing funding for the lawsuit.

Based in Washington, Blum’s non-profit group facilitates pro bono legal representation to political subdivisions and individuals that wish to challenge government distinctions and preferences made on the basis of race and ethnicity.

Blum said he’s studied Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act since 1992 and followed every preclearance request rejected by the justice department, including the DOJ’s 2008 objection to Calera’s redistricting plan and 177 annexations.

“I think Shelby County recognized that the law needed to be changed,” Blum said, “and they were in a very good position to do so.”

Blum said U.S. District Judge John D. Bates’ Sept. 21 ruling against Shelby County was “very disappointing,” because the county “amply demonstrated that the reauthorization of the 2006 Voting Rights Act was no longer necessary given the remarkable racial progress that has been made in the states originally covered by the act.”

Shelby County, through its lawsuit, said it had in the last 10 years “expended significant taxpayer dollars, time and energy” complying with Section 5, which requires federal approval for any change to voting procedure.

“Not only has this been costly for Shelby County, it has cost these nine states [required to get preclearance] tens of millions of dollars over the last few years to comply with this,” Blum said.

How did Shelby County get involved with the Project for Fair Representation?

As he followed all preclearance objections, Blum said he read the attorney general’s Aug. 25, 2008 objection to Calera’s redistricting plan and 177 annexations. That plan, according to Bates’ opinion in Shelby County v. Holder, would have eliminated the city’s only majority-black district.

“I happened to read the one concerning the city of Calera,” Blum said. “I started exchanging phone calls and emails with (Shelby County Attorney) Butch Ellis throughout the process of the Texas litigation. That’s how we established our relationship.”

In June 2009, the Supreme Court ruled on that Texas litigation – Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District v. Holder. The court ruled that individual jurisdictions should get the chance to bail out of Section 5 coverage, but didn’t address the constitutionality of Section 5.

Asked about Calera’s 2008 preclearance issue, Blum said:

“Calera can make any election changes to their election schemes that they want to, and they do not have to ask Shelby County, just as Shelby County can do changes to their elections and processes without asking the state of Alabama. If Shelby County is found in violation of Section 5, then all of Alabama is punished. That’s the exact same thing that happened with Calera. Even if Calera had done something wrong, it cannot be blamed on Shelby County. Part of the act is convoluted and twisted for those very reasons.”

In speaking about Calera, Blum never accused the city of any wrongdoing.

It’s “very probable” Shelby County will file appeal Bates’ decision, Blum said.

“Ultimately,” he added, “I think it’s widely recognized that this case is heading back to the U.S. Supreme Court.”

Ellis has been out of town this week and unavailable for comment.