Supreme Court will hear challenge to parts of the Voting Rights Act

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David Demirbilek Contributor
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The U.S. Supreme Court agreed Friday to hear a case brought by an Alabama county challenging the constitutionality of portions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

The landmark civil rights law was most recently reauthorized in 2006. Section 5 of the law requires states and localities with histories of racial discrimination to seek the federal government’s approval before attempting to alter their voting processes.

Section 5 currently covers jurisdictions where there was certain evidence of voting discrimination 40 years ago — in 1972.

Shelby County, Ala. argues that relying on decades-old voting data to establish present-day voting discrimination is unconstitutional. The Birmingham-area county is challenging the formula that determines which states are covered under the law.

The Pacific Legal Foundation, a conservative legal advocacy group, filed a Supreme Court brief on behalf of Shelby County, urging the high court to accept the case.

“It’s sort of a time capsule law, structured to respond to a bygone era — the loathsome, but long-gone, systematic discrimination that was the Jim Crow south,” the organization said Friday in a press release.

“Section 5’s coverage formula is based on data that is over forty years old, and doesn’t reflect current voting policies and practices.”

Shelby County’s lawsuit isn’t the first one to attack the Voting Rights Act. In 2009 the Supreme Court heard a challenge to the law brought by a Texas utility district that was covered under the law because it was considered a “political subdivision” of a state with a history of racial discrimination.

The Court refused to decide on the constitutionality of the Voting Rights Act, instead instructing the utility district that it could take advantage of procedures built into the law to carve out an exemption for itself.

But the Court did express concerns that the 2006 version of the Voting Rights Act presented “serious constitutional challenges” for the nine states and numerous other municipalities whose Election Day practices it controls.

A federal appeals court found that the county failed to seek clearance with the U.S. Department of Justice before it held several special elections. The U.S. Attorney General’s office has also objected to annexations and a redistricting plan proposed by a city within Shelby County.

Those circumstances have rendered the county ineligible for any exemptions from the law. So unlike the Texas utility district’s case, this one will be the first to force the Court to decide on the Voting Rights Act’s constitutionality.

The Supreme Court has not yet scheduled a date for oral arguments in the case.

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