Civil and Human Rights

Federal judge dismisses Shelby County’s challenge of Voting Rights Act

By Brad Gaskins

A federal judge today dismissed Shelby County’s lawsuit challenging certain sections of the Voting Rights Act.

U.S. District Judge John Bates’ ruling comes after he heard oral arguments Feb. 3.

The county’s challenge concerned sections 4(b) and 5 of the Voting Rights Act, which forbids cities and towns in nine states, including Alabama, from making any changes in voting practices or procedures without approval from the federal government.

The Justice Department, along with the American Civil Liberties Union, charged that Sections 4(b) and 5 should remain in place, and the judge agreed.

“Bearing in mind both the historical context and the extensive evidence of recent voting discrimination reflected in that virtually unprecedented legislative record,” Bates wrote, “the Court concludes that ‘current needs’ – the modern existence of intentional racial discrimination in voting – do, in fact, justify Congress’s 2006 reauthorization of the preclearance requirement imposed on covered jurisdictions by Section 5, as well as the preservation of the traditional coverage formula embodied in Section 4(b).”

The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law intervened in the case to defend Section 5, representing Bobby Lee Harris, a Shelby County resident and a former member of the Alabaster City Council.

“Today’s decision properly recognizes the important role that Section 5 plays in combating voting discrimination,” Jon Greenbaum, chief counsel for the Lawyers’ Committee who argued the case on behalf of Harris, wrote in a press release.

Through a press release, Harris praised the judge’s ruling.

“I know from first-hand experience how important Section 5 is for minority voters,” Harris wrote.  “In 2000, Section 5 prevented Alabaster from redrawing the boundaries of the ward I represented so as to dilute minority voting strength.”

Shelby County Attorney Butch Ellis was not immediately available for comment.

David Gans, the director of the Constitutional Accountability Center’s Human Rights, Civil Rights and Citizenship Program, released a statement praising the judge’s ruling.

He called it “a victory for the right to vote, a right at the core of the Constitution’s text and history.”

“The group bankrolling Shelby County’s lawsuit announced its intent to support an appeal before the ink was dry on Judge Bates’ opinion,” Gans said, “but today’s powerful and thorough ruling by a conservative judge provides a roadmap for higher courts to uphold rather than call into question this critical civil rights statute.”

More from Civil and Human Rights