Federal appeals court sets date for county’s VRA challenge

By BRAD GASKINS / Staff Writer

The U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington will hear oral arguments Jan. 19 in Shelby County’s challenge of portions of the Voting Rights Act.

A federal Judge in September ruled against the county’s challenge of Sections 4(b) and 5, which require certain states and municipalities with a history of racial discrimination to get approval from the justice department before making changes to voting districts or procedures.

Judge John Bates ruled against the county Sept. 21, and lawyers for the county filed a notice of appeal the same day.

Shelby County, through a brief dated Nov. 1, is asking the appeals court to strike down Bates’ ruling and declare Sections 4(b) and 5 unconstitutional and prohibit U.S. Attorney General Robert Holder from enforcing them.

“There can be no question that the VRA ushered in long-overdue changes in electoral opportunities for minorities throughout the Deep South,” the brief states. “But Shelby County should not be subject to Section 5 based on voting data more than four decades old. Shelby County supports vigorous enforcement of the Fifteenth Amendment and the many provisions of the VRA that directly enforce the Amendment’s ban on voting discrimination.”

But, the brief continues, “Section 5’s preclearance obligation and Section 4(b)’s stale coverage formula are no longer constitutionally justifiable.”

U.S. Circuit Judges David Tatel, Thomas Griffith and Stephen Williams will hear the case.

Wiley Rein, a Washington law firm specializing in election law and government ethics practice, is representing the county, with Bert W. Rein as lead counsel.

The Shelby County Commission passed a resolution April 26, 2010 to challenge the two sections of the Voting Rights Act at no cost to the county. All expenses are being paid by the Project for Fair Representation, a not-for-profit legal defense fund that supports litigation challenging racial and ethnic classifications and preferences in state and federal courts.

Shelby County Attorney Butch Ellis has repeatedly said the case is destined for the Supreme Court.

Edward Blum, the director of the Project for Fair Representation, has also previously said the case is ultimately headed for the Supreme Court. Blum also said Shelby County is “being punished for sins of their grandfathers or in some cases great-grandfathers.”

Blum previously called Shelby County Commissioners “trendsetters in recognizing that this law was really no longer necessary for Shelby County and all of Alabama.”

There are four other cases pending in federal court challenging portions of the Voting Rights Act. The challenges are from Florida, Georgia, Arizona and a group of citizens from a city in North Carolina.