On Wednesday, February 2, U.S. District Judge John Bates will hear oral argument in one of the most important civil rights cases pending in the lower federal courts, Shelby County v. Holder, a case with nationwide ramifications for the right to vote and our democracy. At issue in Shelby County is the constitutionality of Congress’ nearly unanimous 2006 decision to renew one of the most important and successful provisions of the Voting Right Act — the Act’s preclearance requirement (which requires certain jurisdictions with a history of racial discrimination in voting to obtain federal permission before altering their voting laws or regulations).
The Supreme Court has, on four separate occasions, upheld the constitutionality of the Act’s preclearance provision – in 1966, 1973, 1980, and 1999 – concluding that Congress has broad power under the explicit grant of enforcement power in the Fifteenth Amendment to prevent and deter racial discrimination in voting. But in June 2009, in NAMUDNO v. Holder, the Supreme Court came dangerously close to striking down this critical provision. In an 8-1 ruling authored by Chief Justice John Roberts, the Court declined to decide the constitutionality of Congress’ 2006 renewal of the preclearance provision, but invited future challenges. Shelby County, Alabama, accepted the invitation, filing suit earlier this year in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. Judge Bates has set aside two and-a-half hours for oral argument to carefully consider Shelby County’s claim.
The Voting Rights Act is one of the nation’s most important and iconic civil rights statutes, a critical protection of our multi-racial democracy.
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