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Is Voting a Civil Rights Issue?

created May 24, 2017 02:51 PM

This teaching blog post is meant to accompany the recent Current Context issue on the Supreme Court's ruling Cooper v. Harris, regarding racial gerrymandering.

Reading Supreme Court decisions is a good challenge for anyone, students included. But it is also a good opportunity to gain insight into how the federal government operates, and prevailing opinions on the relationship between the federal and state governments. The following exercise includes primary source excerpts from the Supreme Court case Shelby County, Alabama v. Holder, Attorney General, decided June 25, 2013, and includes classroom questions.

Background Information

In 2013, the Supreme Court struck down a portion of the 1965 Voting Rights Act in the case Shelby County, Alabama v. Holder, Attorney General. Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act had authorized the federal government to monitor voting procedures enacted by states, and Section 4 of the Act allowed the federal government to do so in particular states and counties that had a history of attempting to block the non-white vote. In its ruling, the Court’s majority opinion pointed to near equal levels of white and black voter registration in the monitored jurisdictions as justification for nullifying this portion of the Voting Rights Act. The justices who disagreed with this position cited the importance of earlier intervention by the U.S. Department of Justice to achieve these high numbers of registrations for African-American voters. The dissenting justices also considered the troubling gap between white and non-white registered voters in other parts of the country as evidence of the need for continued monitoring. 

Primary Sources

Majority Opinion (excerpted): The Voting Rights Act of 1965 employed extraordinary measures to address an extraordinary problem. Section 5 of the Act required States to obtain federal permission before enacting any law related to voting—a drastic departure from basic principles of federalism. And Section 4 of the Act applied that requirement only to some States—an equally dramatic departure from the principle that all States enjoy equal sovereignty. This was strong medicine, but Congress determined it was needed to address entrenched racial discrimination in voting… There is no denying, however, that the conditions that originally justified these measures no longer characterize voting in the covered jurisdictions… At the same time, voting discrimination still exists; no one doubts that. The question is whether the Act’s extraordinary measures, including its disparate treatment of the States, continue to satisfy constitutional requirements…As we put it a short time ago, “the Act imposes current burdens and must be justified by current needs.”…The formula in that section (4b) can no longer be used as a basis for subjecting jurisdictions to preclearance.

Minority/Dissent Opinion (excerpted): The stated purpose of the Civil War Amendments was to arm Congress with the power and authority to protect all persons within the Nation from violations of their rights by the States. In exercising that power, then, Congress may use “all means which are appropriate, which are plainly adapted” to the constitutional ends declared by these Amendments…So when Congress acts to enforce the right to vote free from racial discrimination, we ask not whether Congress has chosen the means most wise, but whether Congress has rationally selected means appropriate to a legitimate end…the Court today terminates the remedy that proved to be best suited to block that discrimination.

(The following is an example from the dissent opinion of the effectiveness of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act): In 2001, the mayor and all-white five-member Board of Aldermen of Kilmichael, Mississippi abruptly canceled the town’s election after “an unprecedented number” of African-American candidates announced they were running for office. The Department of Justice required an election, and the town elected its first black mayor and three black aldermen (town councilmen).

Questions 

Questions for majority opinion - according to the justice who wrote the majority opinion, did voting discrimination still exist in 2013; why was the Voting Rights Act put in place in 1965; and why was Section 4(b) no longer appropriate? Given your reading of this, what do you think is this justice’s opinion about the proper relationship between the federal and the state governments; that is, how much authority should the federal government have over the states?

Questions for majority opinion - according to the justice who wrote the dissenting opinion, what powers did the Civil War Amendments (14th and 15th Amendments) give to the U.S. Congress; what “constitutional ends” were sought; why were the means to achieve the goals of the Voting Rights Act appropriate? Given your reading of this, what do you think is this justice’s opinion about the proper relationship between the federal and the state governments; that is, how much authority should the federal government have over the states?

Classroom discussion: Is voting a civil rights issue? Why or why not?

Word bank:

Sovereignty – autonomy, authority of the state

Jurisdiction – area under legal authority

Disparate - different

Excerpts from https://www.law.cornell.edu/supremecourt/text/12-96

 
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