Civil rights groups and black lawmakers hailed Attorney General Eric Holder’s announcement Thursday that the Justice Department will aggressively pursue legal action against certain states that try to implement new voting laws after the Supreme Court struck down a key provision of the 1965 Voting Rights Act that requires those states to get federal clearance before making those changes to guard against discrimination.
In a speech delivered at the Urban League convention in Philadelphia, Holder announced that his department will ask a court to require Texas to seek permission from the federal government before the Lone Star State makes changes in its voting laws for the next decade.
“This is the department’s first action to protect voting rights following the Shelby County decision, but it will not be our last,” Holder said. “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 subject states to pre-clearance as necessary. My colleagues and I are determined to use every tool at our disposal to stand against such discrimination wherever it is found.”
Ryan Haygood, director of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund’s political participation group, called Holder’s action a “bold request.”
“Texas is notorious for its repeated efforts to discriminate against voters of color,” Haygood said in a statement. “Just last year, two separate federal courts rejected Texas’s attempt to enforce the most racially discriminatory photo ID measure in the country and to implement intentionally discriminatory redistricting plans”
Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-Ohio), chair of the 42-member Congressional Black Caucus, lauded Holder’s announcement.
“I think it’s a great move. I think it’s overdue. I believe the Justice Department should have been involved in the Texas case earlier,” Fudge told reporters. “I think the Civil Rights Division and the Justice Department in general should make sure that the citizens of this country have fair and equal treatment.”
Last month, Texas was the first state to declare that it would proceed with new laws requiring voters to present government-sanctioned photo identification after the Supreme Court declared Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act unconstitutional.
That section determined which states and jurisdictions had to get Justice Department approval – or –pre-clearance – before changing any of their voting procedures as a safeguard against discriminatory practices at the polls. The court’s 5-4 decision essentially weakened Section 5 of the act, which requires designated states and jurisdictions to undergo pre-clearance before enacting new voting rules.
Voting Rights Act pre-clearance states include Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia. Some counties in California, Florida, New York, North Carolina and South Dakota and subjected to pre-clearance as well.
Like Texas, Alabama, Mississippi and North Carolina indicated that they might implement new voting laws in the aftermath of the Supreme Court decision. Like Texas, they may find themselves under Justice Department. Justice Department officials said North Carolina may be next if it proceeds with trying to change its voting laws.
“We cannot allow the slow unraveling of the progress that so many, throughout history, have sacrificed so much to achieve,” Holder told the Urban League.
With Section 4 gutted, Holder is relying on Section 3 of the Voting Rights Act to uphold pre-clearance requirements. Under Section 3, if the Justice Department can prove that states or jurisdictions have committed constitutional offenses, federal courts may impose federal oversight rules.
“Based on the evidence of intentional racial discrimination that was presented last year in the redistricting case, Texas v. Holder – as well as the history of pervasive voting-related discrimination against racial minorities that the Supreme Court itself has recognized – we believe that the State of Texas should be required to go through pre-clearance process whenever it changes its voting laws and practices,” Holder said.
Rep. G.K. Butterfield (D-N.C.), a black caucus member and former North Carolina judge, said he met with Holder earlier in the week and encouraged him to look at other provisions in the Voting Rights Act that would continue to make Section 5 enforceable.
“Wherever the attorney general can find flagrant violations of the Voting Rights Act…he needs to bring lawsuits,” Butterfield told reporters.
In Texas, Republican Gov. Rick Perry condemned Holder’s action, saying the attorney general showed “utter contempt for our country’s system of checks and balances.”
“This end round the Supreme Court undermines the will of the people of Texas, and cast unfair aspersions on our state’s common-sense efforts to preserve the integrity of our election process,” the governor said in a statement.
Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas) simply called Holder’s move “nuts.”
“To say Texas is discriminatory is absolutely ridiculous,” Barton told reporters on Capitol Hill. “When the Voting Rights Act was passed in the 60s, it was necessary.
There was discrimination and I think the Voting Rights Act, for its time, was an acceptable remedy, or attempt to remedy, that discrimination. The Texas of today is not anywhere close to where the Texas of a long time ago may have been.”