Shelby County sued the United States seeking a declaration by the federal court that two sections of the Voting Rights Act (VRA) of 1965, Sections 4(b) and 5, are unconstitutional on their face. Section 4 provides the “coverage formula” which defines the “covered jurisdictions” as States or political subdivisions that required preclearance of any change in voting procedures pursuant to section 5.

We intervened in the case on behalf of the United States, with the goal of preserving intact these two enforcement provisions of the VRA. We represented the Alabama NAACP and four voters in Shelby County. The NAACP Legal Defense Fund and the Lawyers Committee also joined the case representing other defendant-intervenors.

We asserted that Section 5 of the Act, which since 1965 has protected racial and language minorities’ access to voting across the South and the nation, should remain in place. Section 5 requires certain jurisdictions like Shelby County that have a long history of racial discrimination in voting to obtain advance approval from the federal government before changing their election laws. The Voting Rights Act is arguably the most important civil rights legislation in American history. With that act, the promise of the Fifteenth Amendment, purporting to give Americans the right to vote regardless of “race, color, or previous condition of servitude,” became a law, and African Americans finally had the right to vote.

On cross motions for summary judgment, the D.C. District Court upheld the constitutionality of § 5, concluding that:

  • Despite the effectiveness of Section 5 in deterring unconstitutional voting discrimination since 1965, Congress in 2006 found that voting discrimination by covered jurisdictions had continued into the 21st century, and that the protections of Section 5 were still needed to safeguard racial and language minority voters. Understanding the preeminent constitutional role of Congress under the Fifteenth Amendment to determine the legislation needed to enforce it, and the caution required of the federal courts when undertaking the “grave” and “delicate” responsibility of judging the constitutionality of such legislation—particularly where the right to vote and racial discrimination intersect—this Court declines to overturn Congress's carefully considered judgment.

Shelby County, Ala. v. Holder, 811 F.Supp.2d 424, 508 (D.D.C. 2011). Shelby County appealed to the D.C. Circuit which, 2-1, affirmed the district court’s conclusion that Congress did not exceed its constitutional authority when it reauthorized the preclearance requirement of the Voting Rights Act in 2006 and that the disparate geographic coverage of the preclearance requirement was sufficiently related to a targeted problem of discrimination in voting in order to survive constitutional review.

The case was then appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court which granted review. On June 25, 2013, the Court issued its opinion holding that the section 4 coverage formula was unconstitutional because it was substantially out of date and therefore could not be used to implement the section 5 preclearance requirement. The Court did not rule on section 5, leaving open the possibility that Congress could draft an up to date coverage formula based upon current conditions.

The case is now closed.

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