Victory in Shelby County v. Holder: U.S. District Judge Issues Sweeping Ruling Upholding the Voting Rights Act

This morning, Judge John D. Bates of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia issued a welcome and thoroughgoing rebuke of a challenge to the Voting Rights Act brought by Shelby County, Alabama.  Judge Bates’ comprehensive 151-page opinion rejected Shelby County’s challenge to Congress’ 2006 near-unanimous renewal of the Act’s preclearance requirement, and is the first decision to consider the constitutionality of the Voting Rights Act since the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2009 opinion in NAMUDNO v. Holder, which left that question open.  Today, Judge Bates echoed arguments made by Constitutional Accountability Center in its “friend of the court” brief, recognizing “the preeminent constitutional role of Congress under the Fifteenth Amendment to determine the legislation needed to enforce it.”  (For more on Congress’ power to enforce the Civil War Amendments, see CAC’s Text and History Narrative, The Shield of National Protection).  Judge Bates respectfully considered the arguments for striking down the Act’s requirements raised in NAMUDNO, but concluded that they were inconsistent with the deference due to Congress’s express constitutional powers to prohibit racial discrimination in voting.

Analyzing both the law and the facts, Judge Bates demolished suggestions that the Voting Rights Act – one of our nation’s most iconic pieces of civil rights legislation – is an unjustified affront to state sovereignty, imposed on states and local governments without any basis in current evidence.  Judge Bates started with the text of the Constitution, which specifically empowers Congress to protect the right to vote free from racial discrimination.  He then reviewed Supreme Court decisions from 1966, 1973, 1980, and 1999 upholding the Voting Rights Act, as well as more recent Supreme Court decisions that have imposed limits on Congress’ power to enforce constitutional guarantees.  Both lines of cases, Judge Bates concluded, uniformly recognize that Congress has broad authority to prevent and deter racial discrimination in voting, a right at the core of the Constitution’s text and history.  As Judge Bates explained, “Congress acts at the pinnacle of its enforcement authority when it legislates to protect a fundamental right, or when it legislates to prohibit discrimination against a suspect class.  [Here,] Congress did both.”  Indeed, as Judge Bates noted, even the recent Supreme Court cases that have imposed strict limits on the power of Congress have affirmed the Voting Rights Act as the quintessential example of appropriate enforcement legislation.

In upholding the Voting Rights Act against Shelby County’s challenge, Judge Bates applied the demanding “congruence and proportionality” standard, finding that Congress had ample basis to conclude that racial discrimination in voting still persistsand that the preclearance requirement is necessary to ensure that the right to vote is a reality, and not merely a paper guarantee.  Discussing the 15,000-page legislative record developed by Congress, Judge Bates left no doubt that racial discrimination in voting still plagues the jurisdictions—predominantly in the South – covered by the preclearance requirement.  In his detailed review of the record, Judge Bates discussed a number of intentionally discriminatory practices – redistricting decisions made on the basis of race, intimidation and harassment at the polls, closing or relocating polling places and even cancelling elections to deprive African Americans of the right to vote – that persist in jurisdictions covered by the Act.  Giving due deference to Congress’ explicit constitutional role to safeguard the right to vote free from racial discrimination, Judge Bates concluded that the Voting Right Act was an appropriate response to safeguard the right to vote free from racial discrimination.

Almost immediately after Judge Bates’ decision was released, the Project for Fair Representation, the group bankrolling Shelby County’s lawsuit, announced its intent to support an appeal, calling the Voting Rights Act an out-moded incursion on state sovereignty that “treats racism as an inheritance that clings to the land.”  This charged rhetoric may play well with the tea party set, but today’s thorough, well-reasoned opinion — authored by a conservative jurist appointed by President George W. Bush – provides a roadmap for higher courts to uphold this critical guarantee of our multi-racial democracy.