Shelby County v. Holder: An Ironic Supreme Court Case During Black History Month

Black History Month is an opportunity to remember the efforts of those who worked tirelessly to defend civil rights and celebrate how far we have come. It is also a moment for us to look ahead at the work that is still to be done to defend the rights of African Americans, as well as other minorities. 

It is perhaps ironic that as the month draws to a close, the Supreme Court on Wednesday will hear Shelby County v. Holder, a fresh challenge to the Voting Rights Act of 1965. A fundamental pillar of the civil rights movement, the Act gave African Americans the right to vote.

Shelby County, Alabama, wants the act to be struck down, because it finds Section Five, which prevents “covered jurisdictions” from amending voting laws and procedures without federal approval, irrelevant in a “post-racial” America.

Congress disagrees. It has repeatedly upheld this provision — in 1970, 1975, 1982 — and renewed the Act in 2006 after amassing evidence that voting discrimination persists in the covered jurisdictions. It found that without Section Five, “minority citizens will be deprived of the opportunity to exercise their right to vote, or will have their votes diluted, undermining the significant gains made by minorities in the last 40 years.”

The 2012 election demonstrated today’s relevance of Section Five, as state and local officials tried to impose restrictions, including limits on registration, voter ID laws and short early voting hours. These restrictions would have had a disproportionate impact on racial minorities, Latino voters in addition to African Americans.

Section Five is not immutable. A state with a 10-year clean record under the terms of the Act can “bail out,” as New Hampshire is at present, and other counties have in the past. There is overwhelming evidence that the nine states (Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia) and the counties in seven states (California, Florida, Michigan, New Hampshire, New York, North Carolina and South Dakota) it covers still make it difficult for minorities to vote.

It is true that discrimination no longer manifests itself the way it did in 1965, as Jeffrey Toobin has illustrated in a recent New Yorker piece, but it has not gone away. To argue that the Act is obsolete undermines the every day injustices that minorities still battle against. And to cite the election of the first black president as proof that America has moved beyond racial divisions is ludicrous. The mere reference to race — “black” president — is an indicator that race is still relevant.

On the eve of African American History Month, President Obama himself proclaimed, “we have yet to reach the mountaintop, we cannot stop climbing.” The Supreme Court’s decision on Shelby County v. Holder, expected in June, will either set us back or take us one step closer to the mountaintop.

Perhaps Section Five and the Voting Rights Act do need to be updated to reflect contemporary realities, but no amendment should dilute the Act’s core victory, a fundamental pillar of the American democratic system: the right to vote regardless of race.