“Many of the issues of civil rights are very complex and most difficult. But about this there can and should be no argument. Every American citizen must have an equal right to vote. There is no reason which can excuse the denial of that right. There is no duty which weighs more heavily on us than the duty we have to ensure that right.” – President Lyndon Johnson
In 1965, President Lyndon Johnson signed the historic Voting Rights Act into law, a law that ensured the right to vote for millions of African-Americans and minorities throughout the country. The Voting Rights Act is one of the most important Civil Rights laws in United States History. Section 5 of the law requires nine states and assorted jurisdictions in seven others to win Justice Department approval before changing their voting laws. This week conservative justices on the Supreme Court seemed poised to weaken the law.
Representatives from Shelby, Alabama argued before the court that section 5 (pre-clearance requirement) of the Voting Rights Act is unconstitutional because it infringes on Alabama’s sovereignty. Since its adaption in 1965 the Voting Rights Act has been reauthorized four times, most recently in 2006 to a vote of 98-0 in the Senate and 390-33 in the House. The reauthorization in 2006 was based on a voluminous record, thousands of pages of evidence showing that the covered jurisdictions have a propensity toward discriminatory rules (Washington Post Editorial Board).
The Brennan Center for Justice at New York University maintains that “Section 5 is an essential and proven tool.” According to the center:
“Although progress has been made since the Voting Rights Act passed in 1965, voting discrimination still persists. Between 1982 and 2006, the Voting Rights Act blocked more than 1,000 proposed discriminatory voting changes. Without Section 5’s protection, these changes would have gone into effect and harmed minority voters.”
No Justice was more venomous than Antonin Scalia. Justice Scalia has a history of taking controversial positions on issues and seems to love making outlandish remarks which became evident in his questioning regarding the Civil Rights Act. Scalia states: “I don’t think there is anything to be gained by any senator to vote against continuation of this act. . . . They are going to lose votes if they do not reenact the Voting Rights Act. Even the name of it is wonderful: the Voting Rights Act. Who is going to vote against that in the future?” and even said the Act was a “perpetuation of racial entitlement”. Justice Scalia took an oath to uphold the constitution and from those remarks he obviously views ensuring the right of minorities to vote as another government entitlement not a fundamental right.
More troubling to me is what wasn’t said by Justice Clarence Thomas. Justice Thomas is the only “African-American” member of the Supreme Court and as usual did not make any remarks during oral arguments. Justice Thomas should have some sense of the struggles endured by African-Americans. If it wasn’t for African-Americans such as Rosa Parks, Malcolm X, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Medgar Evers, Thurgood Marshall, etc. men and women that fought and struggled for equality, some even giving their life for the right to vote. If it wasn’t for these men and women there would be no Clarence Thomas on the Supreme Court. For Justice Thomas to not defend the law was shameful and blasphemous, but expected.
Republican Governors and legislators embraced laws aimed at diminishing minority votes. Voting laws were changed in Florida, Virginia, Ohio, and Pennsylvania, that eliminated early voting days, changed voter identification laws, and moved polling places. The old literacy test and poll tax are gone, but those against freedom constantly come up with new ways to limit the vote.
One of the many great things about America is the protection of minority rights. The Civil Rights Act protects the rights of the minority and any law overwhelmingly passed by Congress should be allowed to stand.