By: Elliott Andalman
I was a civil rights lawyer in Mississippi from 1974 to 1987 and handled voting rights cases with the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, making it possible for African Americans to hold public office in Hattiesburg MS and other jurisdictions for the first time since Reconstruction ignominiously ended in the 1870s.
I am incredulous that one of the most important pieces of legislation in our country’s history, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, may be ruled unconstitutional.
The Act was passed to remedy the extraordinary steps taken by the 13 confederate states after the Civil War to prevent African Americans from voting. It took close to 100 years after the ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution in 1870 for African Americans to be able to exercise this most basic of American rights. It also took a civil rights movement in which people were beaten, jailed and killed fighting for the right to vote.
Congress passed the Voting Rights Act in 1965 and has reauthorized it several times since then, most recently in 2006, when there were lengthy hearings and bipartisan support for a 25 year extension of the Act. A key part of the Act is Section 5, which requires that the covered jurisdictions cannot change voting requirements without getting those changes pre-cleared by the Justice Department.
Now these jurisdictions are seeking to have Section 5 declared unconstitutional. All lower courts have upheld the law. However, the Supreme Court has accepted this issue for resolution, and it was argued before the Court on Wednesday, February 27. It is shocking to the conscience that the radical justices on our Supreme Court, led by Justice Antonin Scalia and Chief Justice John G. Roberts, are contemplating overturning the Act.
Justice Scalia, revealing his own prejudice and disdain for the civil rights movement, had the gall to refer to this statute as a “perpetuation of racial entitlement”. Enforcement mechanisms to protect the right to vote of minorities in jurisdictions which forcibly denied them that right for 100 years by both legal means (poll tax and literacy tests) and extra-legal means (terror and lynching) are not a racial entitlement. Justice Roberts, revealing his own prejudice against the law and misunderstanding of relevancy, asked if the citizens of the South are more racist than citizens of the North. That is not the right question. It is irrelevant and immaterial. The question is simply whether the South (the covered jurisdictions) has eliminated the vestiges of racial discrimination in voting. Based on voluminous evidence, Congress determined that it has not.
The law should be upheld.