U.S. Supreme Court agrees to hear Voting Rights Act case

By CHRISTINE BOATWRIGHT / Staff Writer

The U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear the case of Shelby County v. Holder, in which the county questions the constitutionality of portions of the Voting Rights Act.

The county originally filed the suit April 27, 2010. The county’s challenge concerned sections 4(b) and 5 of the Voting Rights Act, which forbid cities and towns in 16 states, including Alabama, from making any changes in voting practices or procedures without approval from the federal government.

The Voting Rights Act was established in 1964, and U.S. Congress has renewed the act twice, most recently in 2006 for 25 additional years, according to Shelby County Attorney Butch Ellis.

“In 2006, Congress and the president recognized that even in the face of progress, there is very strong evidence that more work must be done to ensure equal voting opportunity,” stated Debo P. Adegbile, acting president and director-counsel of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People Legal Defense Fund , in a press release.

Ellis said the county supports the Voting Rights Act, but disagrees with certain stipulations.

“(Congress is) applying same criteria as the 1964 presidential election,” Ellis said. “If they would use any election in last decades, we and the other cities and counties would not be required to (undergo pre-clearance). They’re using data that is over 45 years old.”

After the U.S. Court of Appeals overruled the Shelby County suit by a vote of 2-1 in May, the court, “After thoroughly scrutinizing the record and given that overt racial discrimination persists in covered jurisdictions notwithstanding decades of Section 5 pre-clearance, we, like the district court, are satisfied that Congress’s judgment deserves judicial deference,” according to a press release from the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.

Judge Stephen Williams of the U.S. Court of Appeals dissented in the circuit appeal and “ruled in favor of our opinion” in May, Ellis said.

According to Ellis, Williams found Section 4(b) to be unconstitutional because there was no evidence to distinguish the actions of those states and municipalities under the Voting Rights Act from those that are not required to follow the act’s pre-clearance obligations.

Ellis said the states and municipalities involved in the suit have spent “literally billions of dollars” that could be used for other purposes, such as education.

In Shelby County’s case, 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.

The Supreme Court will hear the case in February or March 2013 and decide on the case by June, Ellis said.