Bill Knight - July 18
1:30 pm
Wed July 17, 2013

Judicial Activism & Voting Rights

The war against Americans’ voting heated up this summer when the U.S. Supreme Court in a 5-4 decision struck down a formula to ensure access to polls – even as it affirmed the 1965 Voting Rights Act’s goal.

 Two months before the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, where the Rev. Martin Luther King delivered his “I have a dream” speech, the Court turned back the clock on decades of progress.

In brazen judicial activism (which Republicans historically criticize, implying that activism is acceptable if it’s right-wing), the Court ended federal advance approval of changes in voting laws, meaning that any objection henceforth must occur after voting rights are violated.

Bill Knight

Bill Knight's July 18 commentary

The Supreme Court OK’d the Voting Rights Act’s Sec. 5, which reaffirms the right to vote, but ruled that Sec. 4 – which gives the Justice Department or federal courts the tool to ensure voting rights by pre-clearing changes in voting laws – was unconstitutionally out of date because of progress made in the 48 years since its passage.

Progress, of course, is BECAUSE the Voting Rights Act (VRA) and pre-clearance worked

If the Court is concerned about the disparate treatment of states, pre-clear ALL states, or states could expand voting rights, or Congress could fix Sec. 4, or citizens and states could push for a Constitutional amendment guaranteeing the right to vote.

American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten said, “Chief Justice Roberts conveniently ignores the recent history of voter suppression effort. Twenty-first century tactics to disenfranchise Americans – restrictive voter ID laws, outcome-driven redistricting, limiting voting hours and opportunities, and spreading misinformation about polling places and times – still disproportionately impact African-American, Latino, immigrant and low-income voters, as well as students and seniors.”

The VRA – enacted with the help of Illinois’ U.S. Sen. Everett Dirksen, a Republican leader, mandates that 16 mostly Southern areas with histories of bias must get permission from the U.S. Justice Department or a federal court before changing voting procedures. Passed when literacy tests, poll taxes and other schemes kept minorities from casting ballots, it’s protected Americans from laws that restrict voting.

It was overwhelmingly reauthorized for 25 years by Congress in 2006 in a huge bipartisan vote – 98-0 in the Senate and 390-33 in the House – and President Bush signed it

The decision could take the country “back to Jim Crow era,” said Larry Hanley of the Amalgamated Transit Union, who said the court “virtually legalizes voter suppression.”

Communications Workers communications director Candice Johnson said, “It wasn’t in 1956 that Calera, Ala., attempted to restrict the vote and the voice of its African-American citizens. It was in 2006. The Voting Rights Act is needed today more than ever.”

Service Employees union president Mary Kay Henry agreed, adding, “With this decision, state and local governments in areas with a proven history of racial discrimination in voting will have no effective check on their power to change election laws as they please.”

Indeed, five states – Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, North Carolina and Texas – already are moving to restrict voting rights. Within days of the Court ruling, Texas’ Republican Attorney General declared that the decision frees states from the Voting Rights Act and said that he’d immediately re-impose Texas’ voter ID law, which would dump millions of Latinos and African-Americans from voting rolls. The federal government last year said it failed to protect voters.

The Court suggested that Congress could update Sec. 4, cynically and no doubt purposefully ignoring the Capitol Hill gridlock imposed by Tea Party extremists. Still, 44 states have passed or proposed bills strengthening voting rights, although approval everywhere is hardly certain.

Writing the dissent, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said amendments passed after the Civil War specifically provided for Congress to pass laws enforcing equal rights and protecting voting rights. She added that “hubris is a fit word for today’s demolition.”

A legal brief filed beforehand by the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights summed up the goal endorsed but threatened by the Roberts Court: “A vital national interest is at stake, the right of all citizens to vote free from discrimination and to choose leaders that represent their interests.”  

Bill Knight’s newspaper columns are archived at billknightcolumn.blogspot.com

The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of Tri States Public Radio or Western Illinois University.