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Supreme Court Hears Challenge to Landmark Voting Law

The Supreme Court heard arguments Wednesday on a challenge by a Texas community to strike down an extension to the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Marcia Coyle of the National Law Journal recaps the day in court.

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  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Enacted by Congress in 1965 and renewed as recently as 2006, the Voting Rights Act has been one of the federal government's most potent tools to guarantee equal access to the polls.

    One key provision applies to all or parts of 16 states with a history of racial discrimination in voting and requires that they seek prior approval, known as "pre-clearance," from the federal government for any changes in how elections are conducted.

    A Texas municipal utility district is asking the Supreme Court to declare that provision unconstitutional, and arguments were heard today.

    Marcia Coyle of the National Law Journal was there and is here again with us tonight.

    Welcome back.

  • MARCIA COYLE, National Law Journal:

    Thanks, Jeff.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Now, take us back to this landmark civil rights legislation. What kind of practices was this provision intended to combat?

  • MARCIA COYLE:

    There were many practices. The act was enacted in 1965. There were many practices existing at the time that were designed to either intimidate or stop minority voters from going to the polls.

    One of the most notorious would have been the poll tax, but there were others that involved identification requirements. There were many creative ways to do this at the time.

    And the provision we're talking about today, Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, is considered the heart of the Voting Rights Act, or its engine, because in those jurisdictions that we call "covered jurisdictions" that have to seek pre-clearance, there was a long, deeply rooted pattern of discrimination on the basis of race.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    All right. So fast forward to today. And this particular case involves, as I said, a Texas municipal district.

  • MARCIA COYLE:

    Yes.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Now, what did it have to do? And what was its legal argument today?

  • MARCIA COYLE:

    Well, this district has elections for its board of directors. It's a municipal district that provides waste and other public services. It's not like a county or a city.

    It traditionally held its elections in garages or private homes, and it wanted to move its elections into a public place, for example, a school district. In order to do that, it had to seek pre-clearance from the Department of Justice or a federal court in Washington, because it's in Texas, which is a covered jurisdiction under Section 5.

    But instead of seeking pre-clearance, the district sued the attorney general of the United States, saying, We qualify to bail out of Section 5. If we don't, if you find we don't, then we think Congress exceeded its powers under the 14th Amendment when it extended Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act in 2006, and that was unconstitutional.

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