In Senate, emotional appeal to restore 'heart and soul' of Voting Rights Act

Rep. John Lewis of Georgia, a leader of the 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery, urged the Senate Judiciary Committee to restore a key section of the Voting Rights Act struck down by the Supreme Court.

AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin
Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., testifies at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on the Voting Rights Act on Capitol Hill in Washington, on Wednesday. Congress is considering next steps following the Supreme Court's decision last month to strike down key elements of the law.

Rep. John Lewis (D) of Georgia, an icon of the civil rights movement, urged members of the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday to quickly restore a key section of the Voting Rights Act that recently had been struck down as unconstitutional.

In an emotional appeal, the congressman told his fellow lawmakers in Washington that the US Supreme Court’s decision last month had removed the “heart and soul” of the Voting Rights Act (VRA).

“It broke my heart,” he said of the decision. “It made me want to cry.”

“Come walk in the shoes of those who wanted to register to vote, but couldn’t,” he urged the senators.

“Before the Voting Rights Act people stood in immovable lines,” he said, referring to the struggle for African-Americans to vote in the Deep South in the 1950s and 1960s. “On occasion, a person of color would be asked to count the number of bubbles in a bar of soap or the number of jelly beans in a jar.”

Congressman Lewis occupies an important place in US civil rights history as one of the leaders of the 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery, Ala. Some 500 men, women, and children were marching peacefully for the right to vote when they were attacked by Alabama state troopers mounted on horseback. The event came to be known as Bloody Sunday.

It shocked the nation, including President Lyndon Johnson, who worked for quick passage of the Voting Rights Act later that year.

In its ruling last month, the high court acknowledged that racial and ethnic discrimination were still a problem in the US. But the majority justices said Congress was relying on now-outdated criteria tied to conditions in the 1960s and 1970s to determine which states and local governments would be covered by the VRA’s heightened enforcement requirements.

The challenged sections of the law required covered jurisdictions to obtain prior permission from Washington before carrying out any election changes. The provision proved highly effective in undercutting attempts to deny equal voting rights to minorities.

But state and local governments complained that now – nearly 50 years later – Congress should update its enforcement criteria. The majority justices invited Congress to address the issue and restore the law using more up-to-date criteria.

It remains unclear whether Congress will rise to the challenge. Some analysts suggest that such a measure will not survive the usual partisan bickering. But others say they are hopeful that a new, bipartisan bill will emerge next fall and win wide support.

Sen. Patrick Leahy (D) of Vermont, the committee chair, said he called the hearing on the Voting Rights Act quickly after the high court ruling to get the process moving. He said he would “work the phones” during the Senate’s August recess to lay the groundwork for a bill next fall.

“People die in other parts of the world trying to have a free country with a right to vote,” he said. “Americans should not be denied it just through the application of local [discriminatory] laws.”

Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R) of Wisconsin, an outspoken supporter of the Voting Rights Act, testified with Lewis to urge passage of a new version of the law.

“I believe the Voting Rights Act is the most successful of all our civil rights acts passed since the 1950s,” he told the panel. “We can’t afford to lose it now.”

Michael Carvin, a Washington appellate lawyer, testified that the Supreme Court’s decision had left intact Section 2 of the VRA. He said that section of the law would be enough to continue effective efforts to counter any discrimination in elections or voting.

Justin Levitt, a voting rights specialist and professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, disagreed. He said the high court action “ripped a sizable hole” in the legal protections for minority voters.

Professor Levitt said lawsuits brought under Section 2 would be slower, more complicated, and more expensive to wage than proceeding under the old version of the VRA.

“Justice should never be too expensive. Justice should never be too slow … or dependent on the ability to find help,” he said.

“For a fundamental right that is not enough.”

At the center of the challenge for Congress is finding a way to set a new criterion that will identify those jurisdictions that engage in the most egregious discrimination in voting.

The high court said Congress must use current data and apply its new formula equally across the country.

Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, the ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee, said the Supreme Court had taken up a similar challenge to the Voting Rights Act in 2009 and warned Congress that there were serious constitutional concerns about the measure.

“Congress could have drafted a new coverage formula to address those concerns,” Senator Grassley said. “We could have created a formula on 21st-century realities, not the dramatically different conditions that existed in the 1960s and 1970s.”

Grassley acknowledged that some Democratic members of Congress have stated that it will be impossible to gain support in the Republican-held House of Representatives for a new version of the VRA. But Grassley said rather than blaming Republicans for blocking a bill that does not exist, the Democratic majority should propose a way to update the coverage formula in a way that complies with the constitutional concerns raised by the high court.

“We could cover the whole country,” he suggested. “We could identify jurisdictions engaging in discrimination in the 21st century and where Section 2 is inadequate,” he added.

In his appearance before the committee, Lewis acknowledged that conditions had improved since the 1960s.

“It is true, we have made process,” he said. “We have come a great distance, but the deliberate, systematic attempt to make it harder or more difficult for many people to participate in the democratic process still exists to this very day.”

“The burden cannot be on those citizens whose rights were, or will be violated,” Lewis said. “It is the duty of Congress to restore the life and soul of the Voting Rights Act. We must do it. And we must do it now.”

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