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Appeals court upholds key provision of Voting Rights Act. Supreme Court could loom

A federal court on Friday rejected an Alabama county's argument that a key part of the 1965 Voting Rights act is outdated. That could set the stage for a Supreme Court hearing. 

By Staff writer / May 18, 2012

A divided federal appeals court panel on Friday upheld Congress’s 2006 extension of a key provision of the Voting Rights Act (VRA) of 1965, setting the stage for an expected showdown over the civil rights law at the US Supreme Court.

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Section 5 of the VRA requires states, counties, and other jurisdictions with a history of discrimination in elections to obtain pre-approval from Washington before enacting any changes to election procedures that might undercut minority voting.

The US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia voted 2 to 1 to throw out a lawsuit filed by Shelby County, Alabama that challenged the reauthorization of Section 5. Lawyers for the county argued that Congress was not justified in automatically reimposing the Section 5 requirements on the same states and jurisdictions identified as egregious discriminators nearly 50 years ago. They say the state is being punished for past problems that no longer exist.

At issue is whether Congress’s decision to extend Section 5 of the VRA for 25 years meets a Supreme Court requirement that the remedy be “congruent and proportional” to the level of discrimination that currently exists in nine states and parts of seven other states covered by the provision.  

A federal judge rejected the county’s argument and upheld the statute. On Friday, the appeals court affirmed that result, eliciting praise from civil rights organizations.

“Our job is to ensure that Congress’s judgment is reasonable and rests on substantial probative evidence,” Judge David Tatel wrote in the 63-page majority opinion. “After thoroughly scrutinizing the record and given that overt racial discrimination persists in covered jurisdictions … we are satisfied that Congress’s judgment deserves judicial deference.”  

Tatel added: “Does the severe remedy of [Section 5] preclearance remain ‘congruent and proportional’? The legislative record is by no means unambiguous. But Congress drew reasonable conclusions from the extensive evidence it gathered.”

In a dissent, Judge Stephen Williams said the criteria Congress used to decide which states are covered by Section 5 were outdated and did not satisfy a Supreme Court requirement that the measure be “congruent and proportional” to Congress’s remedial goal of fighting discrimination.

Judge Williams said criteria used under the law are based on statistics from 1972. “If the formula were to be updated to use more recent election data, it would cover only Hawaii,” he said.

Judge Tatel said the question isn’t whether the law relies on old data, but whether the criteria continue to identify jurisdictions with the worst problems. “If it does, then even though the formula rests on decades-old factors, the statute is rational,” Tatel wrote.

Williams cited the ongoing dispute over voter ID laws in South Carolina and Texas as an example of how the Voting Rights Act subjects covered states to heightened and questionable legal requirements.


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