Charles Ogletree on Shelby County v. Holder Decision

The Washington Post today published a series of brief op-eds in reaction to the Supreme Court decision in Shelby County v. Holder, a ruling that dealt a major setback for voting rights. One of the op-eds was from founding EJS board chair, Prof. Charles J. Ogletree, Jr., Professor at Harvard Law School; founding and executive director of the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice at Harvard Law School.

Charles Ogletree, TreeThe decision in Shelby County v. Holder has my father, a native of Alabama, turning in his grave. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 made this critical right accessible to all citizens.

With its deeply misguided decision to invalidate the formula used to identify states and jurisdictions requiring pre-clearance approval, five justices have chosen to rip out what Rep. John Lewis has called the “heart and soul” of the Voting Rights Act. The result is a patient gasping for breath. In her dissent, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg summed up the illogic of this decision brilliantly: “Throwing out preclearance when it has worked and is continuing to work to stop discriminatory changes is like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet.”

This decision moves us backward at a time when voting rights are being threatened at a level we haven’t witnessed in decades — indeed, since before the Voting Rights Act was passed. Granted, those seeking to disenfranchise “undesirable” voters no longer use literacy tests. Their strategies are more sophisticated now, but their intent is all too familiar. As a rapidly growing number of states impose new restrictions on voting, we can see that voter suppression is alive and well. Consider, for example, the photo identification requirements that have passed in 20 state legislatures since 2003. Ostensibly designed to prevent in-person “voter fraud” (which research has shown is practically nonexistent), these laws make it harder for members of minority groups — youth, the poor, women, the elderly or anyone who does not possess a government-issued photo identification — to vote. Who are they kidding? All but one of these laws were passed by Republican legislatures and signed by Republican governors. A few legislators privately admitted the obvious: these laws are designed to keep certain voters away from the ballot box. To limit the long-term damage of this decision, Congress must move swiftly to update the legislation’s formula so that the heart of the Voting Rights Act can be restored.

See the original op-ed on The Washington Post

ABOUT THE CASE: In a major setback for voting rights, the Supreme Court on June 25, 2013, issued a decision in Shelby County v. Holder, a case challenging the constitutionality of provisions of the Voting Rights Act. In a 5-4 decision, the Court struck down Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act, invalidating the coverage formula that determines which jurisdictions are covered by Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, and therefore subject to the preclearance provisions of the Act. Although the Court acknowledges discrimination, the Court did not rule on the constitutionality of Section 5. With this decision, it’s up to Congress to update the coverage formula to determine what jurisdictions will be covered by Section 5 and ensure that voters in jurisdictions with current and persistent records of discrimination continue to be protected.

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