Lawmakers attend SCOTUS arguments in voting-rights case

Members of Congress rarely attend oral arguments at the Supreme Court, but several showed up Wednesday as a landmark case on the Voting Rights Act was debated.

Sens. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Ben Cardin (D-Md.) and Reps. John Lewis (D-Ga.), Robert “Bobby” Scott (D-Va.), and Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) were in the audience as arguments proceeded in Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District One v. Holder.

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The high court examined the question of whether Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act is unconstitutional. Section 5 requires certain states — mostly in the Deep South — along with areas in a number of other states to seek pre-clearance from the attorney general or a federal court before altering any part of their election proceedings.

In 2006 the GOP-led Congress reauthorized the Voting Rights Act for 25 years and did not change the list of states in Section 5.

Some argue that many areas of the country have made great strides toward enfranchisement since the end of Jim Crow and that the government intervention thus is no longer necessary.

Nadler passionately disagrees, stating, “There are still attempts to disenfranchise people today based on race, color and creed.”

In an interview with The Hill, Nadler said, “The section is key.”

Both the Bush and Obama administrations have expressed similar sentiments.

Former House Judiciary Committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.), in a statement, joined Nadler in asserting the need for maintaining the protections derived from the Voting Rights Act.

“The most fundamental right is the right to vote — and that can be seen on the faces of the individuals who are participating in the democratic process,” Sensenbrenner said. “We built an impressive record during the 2006 reauthorization, and the evidence presented to Congress was overwhelming. While progress has been made, much still needs to be done, and the Voting Rights Act remains as necessary as ever in maintaining that progress.”

On Wednesday, Justice Anthony Kennedy, considered to be the swing vote on the court, expressed concerned about the “great disparity” in how the federal government treats states.

“The question is whether it can be shown to be justified,” Kennedy said.

Lewis, a longtime civil rights leader, told The Hill that Section 5 is “the heart of the legislation.”

Asked what he thought it would mean if the court struck down Section 5, Lewis said he does not want to go “back to that dark place.”

Should the section be struck by the high court, Nadler said Congress would override the court’s decision and write a new law. Nadler serves as the chairman of the Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Civil Liberties.

Not all members supported what Congress did in 2006 with the Voting Rights Act, which passed the House 390-33.

In a statement released following Wednesday’s arguments, Rep. Lynn Westmoreland (R-Ga.) — who was one of the 33 Republicans who voted no three years ago — said, “I couldn’t have been happier than I was today to hear the justices shred the flimsy arguments the House made when renewing this out-of-date legislation for 25 more years. In short, Congress failed in its duties in 2006. It refused at every turn to modernize a 41-year-old law to reflect today’s realities of social and racial progress, of demographic changes in covered and noncovered jurisdictions and of the steady and amazing advancement in states like Georgia, where we have four African-American members of Congress and numerous African-Americans elected to statewide office with many white votes.”



Geoff Greene contributed to this article.