One-man Washington nonprofit helps steer Shelby County voting case
By Mary Orndorff
Shelby County’s name is on the case, but a one-man Washington, D.C., legal defense fund with private donors is the driving force behind one of the most important constitutional challenges to the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
The Project on Fair Representation is the nonprofit run by Edward Blum, a one-time congressional candidate in Texas with two decades of experience in litigation over affirmative action, redistricting and voting rights.
After the U.S. Supreme Court in 2009 expressed some reservations about the constitutionality of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act but no official ruling, Blum found in Shelby County a potential litigant to try again: a local government that had grown weary of the burdens of the Voting Rights Act and a willingness to take that complaint all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.
So the Shelby County Commission agreed to let Blum’s Project on Fair Representation hire the lawyers and file the case that alleges two key parts of the landmark civil rights law are outdated and no longer necessary.
Shelby County lost the first round in federal court last year; this month, the county’s appeal was heard by a three-judge panel in Washington. Regardless of the outcome, the losing side is expected to petition the U.S. Supreme Court, which has already shown an interest in revisiting the issue.
A central question is whether those parts of the country covered by Section 5 of the law — including all of Alabama — can be trusted to run their elections fairly without the strict oversight of the federal government.
Shelby County officials say they can; the U.S. Justice Department, defending Congress’ renewal of the law in 2006, says they can’t.
The Project on Fair Representation was founded in 2005. Blum, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, said he doesn’t take a salary as project director and it has no staff or overhead.
The donations it receives — to pay the lawyers — come through Donors Trust, a public charity that channels resources into causes focused on “limited government, personal responsibility and free enterprise,” according to its mission statement.
Blum said the Project and its donors have in common a desire to end the classification of people by race and the policies put in place to treat them differently.
“The donors want to support efforts that will greatly narrow or eliminate the use of race in public policy, in voting, education, employment or contracting,” Blum said.
Shelby County’s argument is that Section 5 of the voting rights law — once a necessary check on blatant discrimination against blacks in the South — is now unfairly penalizing those places for sins long past, and an infringement on state sovereignty.
Among those joining the Justice Department on the other side of the case is the Constitutional Accountability Center, a nonprofit public interest law firm and think tank that disagrees with the Project on Fair Representation’s assertions.
“The whole point of the 15th Amendment and the Voting Rights Act and giving Congress broad power . . . was a recognition that the sovereignty of states has to be limited to ensure that racial discrimination in voting was eliminated,” said David Gans, director of the human rights, civil rights and citizenship program at the Constitutional Accountability Center. “This entire attack on the Voting Rights Act is not really faithful to that history.”
Blum himself has voiced other concerns, as well. He testified before Congress in 2005 against the renewal of Section 5, arguing that it led to racial gerrymandering of districts “that systematically harvested blacks and Hispanics out of multiracial communities to form safe minority districts.” He said the result is bad for both political parties and both races.
“Section 5 has had the effect of insulating white Republican officeholders from minority voters and issues specific to minority communities; and, in turn, it insulates minority elected officials from white voters,” Blum testified then.
Congress in the end disagreed, and extended Section 5 for another 25 years. And a federal judge last year deferred to the judgment of Congress and ruled against Shelby County.