Topic Analysis: Starting the February 2014 Topic

February 2014 Resolved:

The Supreme Court rightly decided that Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act violated the Constitution.

February’s topic poses a seemingly simple question – was Shelby County v. Holder rightly decided? This case was decided in the Fall 2012 Supreme Court term after originating in Shelby County, Alabama in 2011. While this question seems simple, it demands an understanding of voting rights as well as the Constitution. To get you started, here are some important terms and accessible articles that discuss the Shelby County case and decision.

Voting Right Act of 1965

President Johnson signed this legislation into law on August 6, 1965. After popular efforts to end state disfranchisement of voters had achieved modest success and numerous acts of violence and terrorism occurred against activists, Johnson called for legal remedy. Case-by-case litigation against states had been unsuccessful and existing laws were insufficient to enforce the 15th amendment.

15th Amendment (1870)

Section 1. The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.
Section 2. The Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.

disfranchise/disenfranchise

to prevent (a person or group of people) from having the right to vote

(Merriam Webster Online)

Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965

(Department of Justice)

Section 4(a) of the Act established a formula to identify those areas where racial discrimination was most prevalent and to provide for more stringent remedies where appropriate.

Remedies included:

  •  ‘a five-year suspension of “a test or device,” such as a literacy test as a prerequisite to register to vote.’
  • “the requirement for review, under Section 5, of any change affecting voting made by a covered area either by the United States District Court for the District of Columbia or by the Attorney General.”
  • “the ability of the Attorney General to certify that specified jurisdictions also required the appointment of federal examiners. These examiners would prepare and forward lists of persons qualified to vote.”
  • “the authority of the Attorney General to send federal observers to those jurisdictions that have been certified for federal examiners.”

Other provisions ( Section 4(e) and Section 4(f)) guarantee the right to register and vote to those with limited English proficiency.

coverage formula

Section 4(b) presents a formula that determines which states may be subjected to the special provisions if:

  1. As of November 1, 1964, 1968, or 1972, the jurisdiction used a “test or device” to restrict the opportunity to register and vote; and
  2. Less than half of the jurisdiction’s eligible citizens were registered to vote on November 1, 1964, 1968, or 1972; or less than half of eligible citizens voted in the presidential election of November 1964, 1968, or 1972. (Wikipedia)
  3. This formula has been updated by Congress since the enactment in 1965.

jurisdiction

an area within which a particular system of laws is used (Merriam Webster Online)

“preclearance” requirement

“the requirement for review, under Section 5, of any change affecting voting made by a covered area either by the United States District Court for the District of Columbia or by the Attorney General.” (DOJ)

concurring opinion

A court opinion that agrees with the majority opinion, but the Justice has chosen to submit their own comments apart from the majority

“Rightly” 

Merriam Webster defines rightly as

: in a way that is correct

: for a good reason : in a way that is proper or appropriate

: with certainty : for sure

While you may read the resolution in a way that “rightly” means “constitutionally correct”, the definition that is “proper or appropriate” opens the door for arguments about the policy “rightness” of the Shelby County decision. One way to debate in February is to strictly look at the question posed to the Supreme Court – is Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act constitutional? The second way to read the topic is in our greater social and political context, did the Supreme Court rightly decide it is unconstitutional? For example, the ACLU points out that in striking down Section 4 but not Section, the decision leaves ” it to Congress to devise a new coverage formula.” Is that right?

It is up to you to define the grounds of this debate by creating a framework around the word “rightly.”

New York Times outline for Shelby County v. Holder explains the Court’s opinions in easy to understand terminology. I advise you to read the actual court opinion here. In the coming weeks I will be providing guides to reading the Opinion from the angle of Pro and Con.

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