Supreme Court Hears Voting Rights Act Challenge

Affiliate: ACLU of Texas
April 29, 2009 12:00 am

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WASHINGTON – The U.S. Supreme Court will hear an appeal today brought by a small municipal utility district in Austin, Texas challenging a key section of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the landmark federal law that ensured African-Americans and language minorities access to voting booths across the South and the nation. The challenged provision, Section 5, requires certain jurisdictions that have a history of racial discrimination in voting to obtain advance approval from the federal government before changing their election laws. The outcome of the case will have enormous implications for minority voters.

“Unfortunately, racial discrimination and racially polarized voting are not things of the past,” said Laughlin McDonald, Director of the American Civil Liberties Union Voting Rights Project. “It is crucial that voting rights protections like the Section 5 preclearance requirement remain in place. Without this protection, many citizens will be denied the opportunity to exercise their right to vote, or will have their votes diluted.”

The ACLU, which intervened in the case Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District Number One v. Holder, represents an African-American voter who lives in Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District Number One, the jurisdiction that brought the challenge. A number of other civil rights organizations are also participating in the lawsuit.

“Every American citizen has the right to participate equally in the political process, but despite significant progress over the years, many minority voters continue to face great obstacles in exercising that right,” said Steven R. Shapiro, Legal Director of the ACLU. “The Court has dismissed every challenge of the constitutionality of Section 5. We are hopeful that the Court will once again uphold the Voting Rights Act against this latest challenge.”

Congress overwhelmingly approved the reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act in the summer of 2006, and President Bush signed it into law. At the congressional hearings leading up to the vote, a host of ongoing discriminatory tactics that have negatively impacted racial and ethnic minority voters were cited including last minute polling place changes and partisan redistricting.

However, in a direct challenge to this crucial civil rights law, the Austin utility district asked a federal court to declare Section 5 unconstitutional. In May 2008, a federal district court soundly rebuffed the district’s request.

“Every Texan has the right to have his or her vote count and Section 5 is an important part of ensuring this right is protected,” said Lisa Graybill, Legal Director of the ACLU of Texas. “Unfortunately, the danger of minority disfranchisement persists.”

Attorneys representing the African-American voter include Shapiro of the national ACLU, McDonald of the ACLU Voting Rights Project, Graybill of the ACLU Foundation of Texas, Arthur B. Spitzer of the ACLU of the National Capital Area, and Michael Kator and Jeremy Wright of Kator, Parks & Weiser, P.L.L.C.

For more information on this case, including legal briefs, go to:

More information of the work of the ACLU Voting Rights Project is available at:

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