Supreme Court Preserves Voting Rights Act Oversight Provision

For Immediate Release

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Maria Archuleta, (212) 519-7808 or 549-2666; media@aclu.org

Supreme Court Preserves Voting Rights Act Oversight Provision

Court Refrains From Deciding Constitutionality Of Section 5, Issuing Decision On Narrow Grounds

WASHINGTON - In
an 8-1 vote today, the Supreme Court left in place the preclearance
requirements of the Voting Rights Act. Under Section 5 of the Act,
jurisdictions with a history of voting discrimination must obtain
approval from either the Justice Department or a federal court before
implementing any changes in their voting practices or procedures.

The American Civil Liberties Union had intervened in the case, Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District Number One v. Holder (NAMUDNO),
to defend Section 5 on behalf of an African-American voter who lives in
an Austin, Texas utility district that had asked for the preclearance
provision to be declared unconstitutional.

"For more than 40 years, Section 5
has been a critical element of perhaps the most successful civil rights
statute this country has ever enacted," said Steven R. Shapiro, Legal
Director of the ACLU. "As Chief Justice Roberts recognized, the Voting
Rights Act has been instrumental in reducing voting discrimination,
increasing minority voter registration and multiplying the number of
minority officeholders throughout the nation. But, as Congress
recognized when it reenacted Section 5 only three years ago, voting
discrimination is sadly not a relic of the past and Section 5 therefore
continues to play a vital role in ensuring that all citizens have an
equal right to participate in the political process."

It was widely expected that the Supreme Court would rule on the constitutionality of Section 5 in the NAMUDNO
case. Instead, in an opinion written by Chief Justice Roberts, the
Court declined to decide the constitutional question and resolved the
case on narrower grounds.

Under the Voting Rights Act,
"political subdivisions" can "bail out" of the preclearance provision
of Section 5 if they can demonstrate they have not discriminated
against minority voters for a 10-year period. The Court today held that
the municipal district in this case was a political subdivision
entitled to seek a bailout. Because a successful bailout would enable
the district to avoid the requirements of Section 5, the Court
concluded that it was unnecessary for it to address the
constitutionality of the preclearance requirements.

"The district was, in effect, asking
the Supreme Court to declare Section 5 unconstitutional because it has
been so successful," said Laughlin McDonald, Director of the ACLU
Voting Rights Project. "The Supreme Court declined that invitation.
Moreover, by liberalizing the bailout provisions of the Voting Rights
Act, today's decision makes it more difficult for jurisdictions covered
by Section 5 to complain that there is no escape from its preclearance
requirements."

The Voting Rights Act was first
adopted by Congress in 1965, and Section 5 has been extended on four
separate occasions. Most recently, overwhelming and bipartisan
majorities in both the House and Senate voted in 2006 to extend Section
5 for another 25 years after conducting extensive hearings on the
ongoing problem of discrimination in voting.

"We have made progress toward voting
equality in Texas and elsewhere," said Lisa Graybill, Legal Director of
the ACLU of Texas. "But we have not eliminated voting discrimination or
the need for vigilance in combating it. Today's decision will help to
ensure equal voting rights for all Texans."

Attorneys representing the
African-American voter include Shapiro of the national ACLU, McDonald
of the ACLU Voting Rights Project, Graybill of the ACLU Foundation of
Texas, Arthur B. Spitzer of the ACLU of the National Capital Area, and
Michael Kator and Jeremy Wright of Kator, Parks & Weiser, P.L.L.C.

The Supreme Court's opinion on the case can be found online at:
www.aclu.org/scotus/2008term/39106res20090323/39106res20090323.html

For more information on this case, go to: www.aclu.org/votingrights/minority/37008lgl20090302.html

More information of the work of the ACLU Voting Rights Project is available at: www.votingrights.org

 

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The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) conserves America's original civic values working in courts, legislatures and communities to defend and preserve the individual rights and liberties guaranteed to every person in the United States by the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.

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