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 SewellCentury of the Woman: The State of Women and Voting Rights Female lawmakers, officials call for more women at all levels of government to improve equity The Hill's 12:30 Report - Sponsored by The Air Line Pilots Association - Country reacts to debate night of mudslinging 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 TrumpBiden campaign slams Facebook after thousands of ads blocked by platform's pre-election blackout Mnuchin says he learned of Pelosi's letter to him about stimulus talks 'in the press' Harris to travel to Texas Friday after polls show tie between Trump, Biden MORE’s judicial nominees have opposed voting rights, including Supreme Court Justice Brett KavanaughBrett Michael KavanaughVermont secretary of State says Kavanaugh's correction still unsatisfactory Kavanaugh corrects opinion in voting case following Vermont official's objection The Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by Facebook - Trump, Biden blitz battleground states 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 HarrisHarris to travel to Texas Friday after polls show tie between Trump, Biden Harris more often the target of online misinformation than Pence: report Maya Rudolph says she loves playing Kamala Harris on SNL: 'Feels like being on the side of the good guys' 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.