Supreme Court ruling impacts Michigan voters
By Zenobia Jeffries
The Michigan Citizen
DETROIT — “We’re outraged about this decision,” Detroit Chapter NAACP attorney Melvin Butch Hollowell told the Michigan Citizen a day following the Supreme Court’s 5-4 decision to eliminate Section 4 of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
Hollowell says the ruling, made by a conservative court majority, was done in a way that “turns a blind eye” to the country’s history of discrimination in voting.
“This is the most important legislation passed in any country, not just the United States,” he said.
The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the legality of the 1965 Voting Rights Act June 25, but said it can’t be enforced until Congress updates the way it determines which jurisdictions are covered under Section 5. That section requires preclearance by the Justice Department or a federal court before changes to local voting laws can be implemented.
Section 4 sets a formula for determining which voting districts are subject to preclearance. Section 5 mandates what a district must do if it is determined to have discriminated.
By eliminating the current formula for determining which districts have discriminated, the court has made Section 5 irrelevant.
“Section 5 is so important because it’s before the fact, not after the fact,” Hollowell said.
Hollowell explained he and other attorneys used Section 5, “just a few years back,” to stop the state of Michigan from closing the Secretary of State Branch office in Buena Vista Township.
“We stopped them by going to the Justice Department, “he said. “Section 5 allows you to stop this thing before it starts.”
Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr., writing for the majority, said there are other avenues within the Act — Section 2, that makes provisions to uphold voters’ rights.
“But,” Hollowell said, “you litigate after there’s been damage. After a law (such as re-districting) has passed, Section 5 says you can’t put it into effect.”
Hollowell is lead attorney on a federal lawsuit filed May13 against Michigan’s emergency manager law, Public Act 436.
The suit, “purely a right-to-vote case,” claims PA 436 is illegal because the state failed to get preclearance from the U.S. attorney general before the law went into effect.
It also claims the new EM law is unconstitutional because:
n It strips power from locally elected officials and grants power to unelected emergency managers, in some parts of the state but not others.
n The state selected communities of color for emergency manager oversight even though there were white communities in identical or worse fiscal trouble.
“Why would you get rid of something that’s proved to be effective,” Hollowell said, echoing dissenting Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg talking about Section 4.
“It’s applicable today. The Senate and House just passed a bill that would eliminate school boards in Inkster and Buena Vista Township (predominately Black communities). At the same time, they did not dissolve the school district in Hazel Park with a $5.7 million deficit. They didn’t vote to dissolve Walled Lake with over $10 million deficit.”
Both Hazel Park and Walled Lake have predominantly white populations.
Hollowell says the team of attorneys is studying the opinion to determine what impact, if any, it would have on the lawsuit.
“We should know that soon; we’re combing through it very carefully.”
The Detroit Branch NAACP issued an official press statement on the court’s decision, who says the decision is “an example of an outrageous misfortune for the people of our nation.
“While this 5-4 ruling places the future of the Voting Rights Act and its enforcement in the hands of a Congress that is dysfunctional, intransigent, and often engaged in political stagnation, it is indeed a betrayal of the fundamental voting rights of every American. African Americans, Latinos and other minorities are still the victims of severe misuse of voting ID laws. Early voting restrictions, even in the 2012 elections, demonstrate very clearly the need for monitoring and enforcement of state and local communities who violate the rights of the people.”
The 5-4 decision by the conservative majority effectively guts the strongest section of the Voting Rights Act. The suit that led to the ruling grew out of a challenge filed by Shelby County, Ala.
“In 1965, the states could be divided into two groups: those with a recent history of voting tests and low voter registration and turnout, and those without those characteristics,” Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. wrote for the majority. “Congress based its coverage formula on that distinction. Today the nation is no longer divided along those lines, yet the Voting Rights Act continues to treat it as if it were.”
Joining Roberts in the majority were conservatives Antonin Scalia, Anthony M. Kennedy, Clarence Thomas and Samuel A. Alito Jr. Dissenting were the court’s four liberals: Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen G. Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan.
Each time the Voting Rights Act has been up for renewal, it has passed Congress with overwhelming bi-partisan support. However, in today’s climate, it is uncertain whether a voting bill could pass in the House of Representatives, observers said.