WASHINGTON (CN) – A federal judge denied an Alabama county’s challenge to an extension of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, holding that given the county’s history, it was not unreasonable for it to have to continue to reporting voting changes to federal officials.
Congress approved an extension of the Act in 2006 in an effort to continue combating voter discrimination on the basis of race through gerrymandering and other means.
Among the provisions its extended was Section 5, which requires jurisdictions known historically for suppressing black voters to seek permission from the U.S. attorney general to change voter qualifications or instill voter tests.
Shelby County has historically had problems with the law, and in 2008 was denied preclearance for a redistricting plan that eliminated the only majority-black district in the city of Calera.
However, by the time the denial was issued, the city had already adopted the redistricting plan, and the next municipal election resulted in the defeat of the incumbent black councilman who had formerly represented the eliminated district.
The county sued the Attorney General in 2010, asserting that “it is no longer constitutionally justifiable for Congress to arbitrarily impose on Shelby County and other covered jurisdictions disfavored treatment by forcing them to justify all voting changes to federal officials in Washington, D.C. for another twenty five years.”
Shelby County argued that the Attorney General’s objection to the county’s voting changes rendered it ineligible for a federal bailout and claimed that it will have to regularly spend significant taxpayer money to seek preclearance in the future.
Though the county did not challenge the application of the law against it, it did seek a declaration that the section of the law requiring preclearance for changes is unconstitutional.
Several civil rights groups intervened as defendants in the case, asking the court to deny the county’s motion for summary judgment.
In considering Shelby County’s position, U.S. District Judge John Bates acknowledged that although it has been “”[p]raised by some as the centerpiece of the most effective civil rights legislation ever enacted, Section 5 has been condemned by others as an impermissible federal encroachment on state sovereignty.”
However, he went on to note that despite its effectiveness in deterring unconstitutional voting discrimination since its adoption, “Congress in 2006 found that voting discrimination by covered jurisdictions had continued into the 21st century, and that the protections of Section 5 were still needed to safeguard racial and language minority voters.”
“Understanding the preeminent constitutional role of Congress under the Fifteenth Amendment to determine the legislation needed to enforce it, and the caution required of the federal courts when undertaking the ‘grave’ and ‘delicate’ responsibility of judging the constitutionality of such legislation – particularly where the right to vote and racial discrimination intersect – this Court declines to overturn Congress’ carefully considered judgment,” Judge Bates wrote.The judge denied the county’s motion for summary judgment while granting the motion filed by the Attorney General and the intervening civil rights groups.