Yuba County awaits US Supreme Court voting rights ruling
WASHINGTON — Yuba County officials will be watching with intense interest next year when the Supreme Court will consider a challenge from several Southern states to the Voting Rights Act, setting up another landmark clash over federal power and the legacy of discrimination.
In the politically sensitive case, Southern states and others once more seek to lift or revise long-standing requirements that the Justice Department preapprove changes in voting procedures. The challengers say the federal oversight is onerous and no longer needed.
"Things have changed in the South," attorney Bert W. Rein declared in a legal brief for Shelby County, Ala.
The justices agreed on Friday to hear an Alabama county's challenge to the provision that requires much of the South, including its cities and counties, to get advance approval from Washington before making changes in election laws or voting rules.
South Carolina and Texas agree, citing in their own legal brief the "significant and unjustified burdens that the law continues to impose" on states covered by the law's "pre-clearance" requirements. The state of Alaska has claimed the same in a separate brief, complaining of the law's "extraordinary burdens."
The current version of the Voting Rights Act enjoys the strong support of groups such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, as well as many members of Congress, which overwhelmingly reauthorized the law in 2006. Four Alaska Natives and four tribal governments have asked to join the federal government's defense of the act.
"Despite considerable progress," Solicitor General Donald Verrilli Jr. wrote on behalf of the Obama administration, "discrimination against minority voters continues to be a serious problem."
The law covers all of seven Southern states, as well as Alaska and Arizona, and portions of six states, including California, Florida and North Carolina. Citing what they called "the blight of racial discrimination," lawmakers in 1965 first imposed the requirement that the Justice Department review and approve any voting "standard, practice or procedure" in the covered states and localities.
This federal authority covers a wide range of state and local activity, spanning some 12,000 political jurisdictions nationwide. Alabama, for instance, needed federal approval for new voting machines. Arizona needed prior approval to close several Motor Vehicle Division offices because they're used for voter registration.
California needed approval last year for legislative redistricting in several counties, including Merced, Kings and Yuba.
Decades ago, Yuba County became a pre-clearance county when a discrepancy was discovered between who was registered to vote in the county and its population, which federal officials suggested possible racial disenfranchisement.
County officials said the discrepancy happened because people stationed at Beale Air Force Base lived here but were still registered to vote elsewhere.
"The Voting Rights Act is an essential part of American democracy," League of Women Voters President Elisabeth MacNamara declared Friday. "The thought that the Supreme Court might overrule Congress and take away voting rights should send a chill down the spine of every American."
Jurisdictions may apply to the Justice Department to "bail out" from the pre-clearance requirements, as Merced County did this year. Shelby County in Alabama didn't seek to bail out, but instead filed a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the law.
Critics don't dispute the necessity of having the Justice Department watch out for discriminatory voting practices. They do, however, contend that the 2006 reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act for the next 25 years swept in too many states and localities based on antiquated data. Critics also note that some states are treated differently from others, despite the significant civil rights progress that has been made.
"I don't want to see the act gutted," Republican Sen. John Cornyn of Texas asserted during a 2006 Senate debate, while adding that "today, no one can claim that the kind of systemic, invidious practices that plagued our election systems 40 years ago still exist in America."
Three years ago, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. served notice in another case that time may be running out for the "pre-clearance" rule.
"Things have changed in the South," Roberts said then, noting blacks now register and vote there at about the same percentage as whites. And several of the Southern states that are under the special scrutiny of the law have a higher percentage of blacks who vote than in Northern states, which are not covered.
Roberts also questioned the idea of singling out some states for different treatment under federal law. "Our historic tradition (is) that all the states enjoy equal sovereignty," he said.
In 2009, the chief justice stopped short of boldly throwing out the law's pre-clearance requirement. Instead, he fashioned a narrow, compromise ruling that allowed a Texas municipal water district to "bail out" of the Voting Rights Act. But his pointed and skeptical opinion set the stage for a future decision declaring Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act to be an unconstitutional infringement on states' rights.