Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Supreme Court Ruling Leaves in Place Core Provision of the Voting Rights Act

On Monday, the Supreme Court in Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District Number One v. Holder rejected a challenge to the constitutionality of Section 5, the core provision of the Voting Rights Act.

In an opinion authored by Chief Justice Roberts, the Supreme Court recognized that "the historic accomplishments of the Voting Rights Act are undeniable." Todays ruling, which was joined by seven other Justices, recognizes Section 5's critical importance in addressing voting discrimination faced by citizens throughout our country.

"Section 5 remains critical to our democracy and, however grudgingly, the Court acknowledges that in its opinion today. In an unusually harmonious opinion, today's decision upholds the constitutionality of an essential core protection in our democracy," said John Payton, NAACP LDF Director-Counsel. Payton observed that "Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act protects and shields the rights of minority voters from discrimination. Section 5 has long been symbolic of our nation's long and unsteady march toward greater political equality. Without its protections, our nation would unnecessarily face the grave risk of significant backsliding and retrenchment in the fragile gains that have been made."

The Court's ruling ensures that minority voters will continue to have the safeguards provided by the Section 5 preclearance process. The Court expanded the number of places that can seek to "bailout" or exempt themselves from preclearance. However, no Section 5-covered jurisdiction can do so without demonstrating a clean bill of health for a ten-year period.

Writing the court's main opinion, Chief Justice John Roberts said the Texas utility district should be eligible to seek an exemption from provisions requiring federal approval for any changes to local elections.

The court held that the Texas district could apply for exemption even though it does not register voters, like states, counties, parishes and other sub-units that were the primary targets of the Act.

The "bailout" provision has proven workable and achievable for those jurisdictions that have sought it. It remains to be seen how the Court's interpretation of the bailout provision will impact enforcement of Section 5. If, for any reason, today's ruling renders Section 5 unworkable in the future, Congress could always amend the statute.

"The utility district brought this case to tear out the heart of the Voting Rights Act. Today, it failed. The Voting Rights Act remains one of Congress's greatest legacies," said Debo P. Adegbile, LDF Director of Litigation, who argued the case on behalf of Appellee-Intervenors.

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