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Shelby County v. Holder

Background

The Fifteenth Amendment, ratified in 1870, declares that the right to vote "shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude." The Amendment guaranteed the right to vote, but did not guarantee that the vote would be counted, that districts would be apportioned equally, or that voters would be free from intimidation and violence. After struggling for nearly a century to fully enact the Amendment, in 1965 Congress determined that suing states, counties, or cities one at a time would not end racial discrimination in voting. Local officials - determined to suppress minority votes and maintain political power - would quickly shift to new tactics. Congress decided that the only way to stay ahead of those tactics was to prevent the most serious offenders among state and local governments from adopting any new election laws until they had first shown that those laws would not discriminate. Section 5 "preclearance" gave the VRA its strength. As Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote, the law "shifted the advantage of time and inertia from the perpetrators of the evil to its victims."

This massive policy change worked and the Voting Rights Act is now widely credited with being the most effective civil rights law in American history. The VRA led to the elimination of poll taxes and literacy tests; spurred massive voter registration drives; and laid the foundation for generations of minority elected officials.

Since its inception, the VRA has been a target of conservatives who argue that the law's federalism costs outweigh its justifications. The Supreme Court first upheld the constitutionality of the VRA in 1966 in South Carolina v. Katzenbach, and has upheld subsequent extensions by Congress. In 2006, Congress extended the law for another twenty-five years. However, in Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District No. 1 v. Holder (NAMUDNO), decided in 2009, the Court made it easier for covered areas to "bailout" of the law. The Court avoided the constitutional question, remarking only that the law "imposes current burdens and must be justified by current needs."

Shelby County, Alabama is a jurisdiction covered by section 5 of the VRA. Before local elections in 2008, Calera, a town in the county, redrew its boundaries. The black voting-age population had grown in the prior four years, yet the new maps eliminated the City Council's lone majority-black district. A day before the election, the Justice Department objected to the change. Calera could have preserved the majority-black district, but the City Council chose not to. Calera held the election in defiance of Justice Department orders, and the only Black city councilman, Ernest Montgomery, lost by two votes.

The Justice Department negated the election results and Calera moved from single-member districts to an at-large election system for the City Council. Montgomery was easily elected under the new system, winning the largest number of votes of any candidate, while his opponent from 2008 received the second-fewest.

Conservative activists dedicated to rolling back civil rights gains invited Shelby County's lawyer to challenge the constitutionality of Section 5. Shelby County is a direct effort to strike down Section 5.

Our Position

For nearly half a century, the VRA has been one of the most effective pieces of American legislation, ending or preventing the adoption of countless discriminatory voting practices. In renewing the Voting Rights Act, Congress gathered extensive evidence of a continuing need for prophylactic legislation that ensures that the right to vote is not abridged on account of race. Our own experiences in the most recent election inform us that, without section 5, there is a risk that much of the political and social progress made since the passage of the Voting Rights Act would be lost.

How NBLSA Has Become Involved

Amicus Brief
NBLSA signed on to a brief in Shelby County as amicus curiae in support of Respondents, urging the Supreme Court to affirm the ruling of the D.C. Circuit upholding the constitutionality of section 5. The brief argues that there is a real and substantial risk that the progress made in combatting voting discrimination will be eroded if section 5 is invalidated. The brief - authored by the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights (LCCR) - asserts that Congress's decision to reauthorize section 5 in 2006 was amply supported by the legislative record, and thus is entitled to deference from the Court. Click here to read the brief!

Rally on the SCOTUS steps - February 27, 2013
On February 27th, NBLSA will join in collaboration with the LCCR, civil rights leaders, members of Congress, and other advocates from all over the country at the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court during oral arguments in Shelby County v. Holder. Learn more here.

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