This week, the Voting Rights Act will again be in front of the highest court in the land, when the Court takes up the issue concerning a key provision of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 – Section 5.
The Voting Rights Act is probably one of the biggest gains of the civil rights movement starting with Brown v. the Board of Education. In 1965, it outlawed discrimination in voting nationwide. Section 5, took it even a step further, requiring that states with a history of denying blacks the right to vote obtain the approval of a federal court or the U.S. Justice Department before changing election procedures. It is a provision that has been repeatedly reauthorized by Congress, most recently in 2006, when it was extended for another 25 years by margins of 390 to 33 in the House and 98 to 0 in the Senate.
But this week things may change when the Supreme Court hears arguments in a case from Alabama that challenges Section 5 and the formula for the mainly nine other states in the South, have to get approval when they redraw district lines or registration procedures. Shelby County, Ala., a covered jurisdiction under the Voting Rights Act, suggested that Congress was wrong in 2006 to extend the provision for 25 more years and argues that “things have changed in the South” and that the law that exacts a “heavy, unprecedented federalism cost” upon them.
The jurisdictions covered under section 5 include Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia, as well as portions of California, Florida, Michigan, New Hampshire, New York, North Carolina and South Dakota.
It is hard to gauge what may happen, since judicial second-guessing of Congress will be a stretch since the Constitution authorizes Congress to “enforce … by appropriate legislation” the 15th Amendment’s guarantee that the right to vote “shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude,” as well as the 14th Amendment’s guarantee of “equal protection of the laws.”
If the federal government loses the case under review, Shelby County v. Holder, the landmark law passed nearly 50 years ago could be dismantled in a single day.