U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder believes there is plenty of bite left in the Voting Rights Act to effectively take on states with a history of discrimination. On Thursday, the Department of Justice filed a motion in federal court in San Antonio, asking that the entire state of Texas be subject to ‘pre-clearance’ over the state government’s effort to adopt new redistricting maps.
In June, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act–the section that specified a formula for which jurisdictions had to have pre-clearance for changes–but Section 3 still stands. It specifies that federal courts can still put jurisdictions under the pre-clearance requirement, meaning changes to voting laws need pre-approval, if intentional discrimination can be proved.
Holder announced the court filing in a speech Thursday before the National Urban League in Philadelphia. He called it the first move that the DOJ is making in response to the SCOTUS decision, but declared:
…it will not be our last. Even as Congress considers updates to the Voting Rights Act in light of the court’s ruling, we plan, in the meantime, to fully utilize the law’s remaining sections to ensure that the voting rights of all American citizens are protected.
The attorney general also characterized the Voting Rights Act as, in his words:
…the cornerstone of modern civil rights law…we cannot allow the slow unraveling of the progress that so many, throughout history, have sacrificed so much to achieve.
A number of mostly Southern states rushed to enact new voting restrictions once Section 4 was struck down, so the news that the DOJ is just getting warmed up in taking action against these states is welcome to liberal lawmakers and civil rights leaders. U.S. Rep. John Lewis, D-GA, a well-known veteran of the civil rights movement, praised Holder’s announcement and put forward a further agenda:
I’m very encouraged to see the Attorney General and the Department of Justice take this position. I think it’s long overdue. … Without Section 4 I think it’s so fitting and appropriate for the Department of Justice to take the action. And I wish they would take a serious look at what has happened in the state of North Carolina right now also.
North Carolina’s legislature, dominated by Republicans, has been the target of continuing mass protests due to a number of new voting restrictions aimed at Democratic voters. Those include stricter Voter ID requirements, a cutback of early voting times, and punitively withdrawing parents’ right to claim their college students as dependents if those students vote where they attend school.
Rep. Lewis is pushing Congress to craft a bipartisan bill that writes a new pre-clearance formula. However, given the current obstructionism by the GOP in Congress, that isn’t likely to happen any time soon. The DOJ clearly feels it can’t allow voting rights to erode any further. As Richard Pildes, an expert in elections law at New York University, says:
The Justice Department is trying to get the courts to step into the role the Justice Department played before the Shelby County decision [by SCOTUS]. The Voting Rights Act has always permitted this, in some circumstances, but this strategy wasn’t used much. If this approach works, it will help update the Voting Rights Act even without Congressional action.
Republican officials in Texas are, of course, pitching a fit over the DOJ action. Gov. Rick Perry called it an “end-run around the Supreme Court.” Sen. John Cornyn accused Obama of “bullying” Texas, while U.S. Rep. Pete Sessions of Dallas said:
The administration is once again deliberately attempting to push its political agenda by selectively targeting Texas.
The administration is obviously not targeting Texas–at least, not just Texas– as states like North Carolina will soon find out. An administration spokesman, Josh Earnest, responded to the outcry:
The goal of the administration… is to protect the constitutional rights of all Americans. That includes protecting the voting rights of all Americans who are eligible to vote. That’s the goal here. I would assume that that would be a goal that would also be supported by congressional Republicans. We’ll see.
We’ll see, indeed–but I doubt that anyone in the administration is holding his breath while awaiting THAT outcome.
Edited and published by CB