To protect the vote, we must protect the courts

To protect the vote, we must protect the courts
© Greg Nash

On March 7, we commemorate the 54th anniversary of the Selma-to-Montgomery voting rights march. We must not only honor the sacrifices of those brutalized on “Bloody Sunday” in pursuit of equal justice, but also rededicate ourselves to protecting the progress they achieved.     

Our voting rights face the greatest assault in modern history. During the 2018 midterm elections, we saw instances of voter suppression. Texas just threatened to purge nearly 100,000 voters based on citizenship status. A recent report by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights found that voter suppression is at an all-time high.


Our federal courts play a substantial role in defining the contours of rights to full political participation afforded by the Constitution and civil rights laws. A judicial ruling allowed the Selma marchers to finally cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge without injury. From the first cases filed under the Voting Rights Act to those filed decades later, court decisions gave the statute its power to open democracy to everyone.  

Courts can cause damage, too. After several rulings upholding the constitutionality of the Voting Rights Act, in 2013 the Supreme Court gutted the heart of the Voting Rights Act in Shelby County v. Holder. Ignoring voluminous evidence of voting discrimination compiled by Congress, the court dismantled a core requirement that jurisdictions with a history of discrimination preclear voting changes. Congress now has the opportunity to remedy this egregious error and restore the Voting Rights Act to its full strength by passing the Voting Rights Advancement Act, introduced by Rep. Terri SewellTerrycina (Terri) Andrea SewellSanders, Warren battle for progressive endorsements Biden gains endorsement from Alabama's lone Democratic House rep House panel advances Trump's new NAFTA MORE (D-Ala.).

Protecting the franchise must include guarding appointments to the federal bench, especially under the Trump administration. Even if we could convince this Senate to pass the Voting Rights Advancement Act right now, its interpretation would fall to the judiciary. These are the courts that Trump and the GOP are transforming at lightning speed by appointing ideologues who could jeopardize civil rights progress for future generations.

Far too many of President TrumpDonald John TrumpSanders apologizes to Biden for supporter's op-ed Jayapal: 'We will end up with another Trump' if the US doesn't elect progressive Democrats: McConnell impeachment trial rules a 'cover up,' 'national disgrace' MORE’s judicial nominees have opposed voting rights, including Supreme Court Justice Brett KavanaughBrett Michael KavanaughDemocratic group plans mobile billboard targeting Collins on impeachment January reminds us why courts matter — and the dangers of 'Trump judges' Planned Parenthood launches M campaign to back Democrats in 2020 MORE. Among Kavanaugh’s multiple disqualifiers was his D.C. Circuit decision upholding South Carolina’s photo ID law, which the Department of Justice had rejected on the grounds it would disenfranchise tens of thousands of voters of color. He even allowed South Carolina to claim “voter fraud” as rationale for the law without requiring evidence of fraud.   

Hostility to voting rights among Trump’s nominees to appellate and district courts is so common that it has become a feature, rather than a bug. First among these is Thomas Farr. He spent a career defending North Carolina’s many voter suppression measures. Fortunately, his nomination was defeated after reports surfaced that he had personally engaged in voter suppression on behalf of the Senate campaign of segregationist Jesse Helms.

The list goes on. Trump appointed Andrew Oldham to the Fifth Circuit, which has the highest percentage of residents of color of any circuit. Oldham argued on behalf of gutting the Voting Rights Act and defended Texas’s photo ID law before a court found it intentionally discriminated against voters of color. At his Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, he refused to answer Sen. Kamala HarrisKamala Devi HarrisDemocrats: McConnell impeachment trial rules a 'cover up,' 'national disgrace' Parnas pressure grows on Senate GOP Sanders defends vote against USMCA: 'Not a single damn mention' of climate change MORE’s (D-Calif.) question about whether voting discrimination still exists.

When North Carolina appealed the Fourth Circuit ruling to the Supreme Court that it had “targeted African-Americans with almost surgical precision” in requiring voter ID, no fewer than three of Trump’s judicial nominees were on its brief.

The Senate now will consider the nomination of another vote suppressor, Eric Murphy, for the Sixth Circuit. Murphy must be defeated. He successfully defended the nation’s most heinous voter purge law in the Supreme Court, transforming voting rights into a “use it or lose it” proposition. As a result, challenges to voter purge measures around the country, such as the NAACP’s lawsuit in Georgia, were dismissed. Murphy also defended Ohio’s elimination of a measure known as “Golden Week” — a five-day period for voters to register and simultaneously vote — and state restrictions on provisional and absentee ballots.

The Trump administration has mounted a frontal attack on voting rights, from its sham commission promoting voter fraud myths to trying to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census. Packing the federal judiciary with people steeped in voter suppression appears to have become a central strategy in this administration’s battle to restrict the vote. Because these are lifetime appointments with lasting consequences, we must treat Trump’s judicial nominations as a frightening assault on our democracy.

Derrick Johnson is president and CEO of the NAACP. Follow him on Twitter @DerrickNAACP and @NAACP.