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Shelby County and the City of Calera Challenge 47 Year Old Voting Rights Act

By Brandon Moseley
Alabama Political Reporter

Reuters is reporting that the United States Supreme Court is likely to hear Shelby County vs. Holder.  Shelby County and the City of Calera are challenging a section of the 1965 Voting Rights Act which gives the U.S. Department of Justice jurisdiction over reapportionment in 16 states including Alabama.

The case concerns the City of Calera and their reapportionment plan which was rejected by U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder’s Justice Department.  The town (because it is in the state of Alabama) had established a majority minority city council district during its previous reapportionment.  Since then Calera has grown significantly and is now home to over 11,700 residents.  The new subdivisions and annexations do not include any majority Black areas.  As society has changed it has become much more common for Blacks and Whites to live in the same neighborhoods.  The city is still over 20% Black; but the City Council argues that it is impossible to draw a rational district that is majority Black.  The Holder Justice Department has thrown out the city’s reapportionment plan leading to the City of Calera suing the Justice Department challenging the law that gives the DOJ jurisdiction to govern the city’s reapportionment. Since then Shelby County has joined the suit as a plaintiff.  The NAACP Legal Defense Fund has joined the case on behalf of the federal government and Black residents of Calera.

The NAACP Legal Defense Fund issued a written statement about the case.  In their statement the NAACP writes, “The Voting Rights Act of 1965 is one of our nation’s most effective federal civil rights statutes. Shelby County, Alabama has filed a lawsuit seeking to invalidate Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, which is widely regarded as the heart of the legislation. On June 11, 2010, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund (LDF) filed a motion to intervene in the case on behalf of African-American residents of Shelby County whose voting rights are directly impacted by the county’s challenge.”

Section 5 of the 1965 Voting Rights Act requires states that want to change their voting maps to get federal approval.  This applies only to the 16 states which have a history of discrimination…..most of them the states that formed the Confederate States of America (CSA).

The NAACP Legal Defense Fund claims that “Section 5 serves as our democracy’s discrimination checkpoint by requiring jurisdictions with a history of racial discrimination in voting to submit proposed voting changes for federal approval before they are enacted to ensure that they are free from discrimination. This is commonly referred to as the “Section 5 preclearance” process.”

On May 18th, a federal appeals court found in favor of the DOJ and the NAACP LDF and rejected the challenge by Shelby County and the City of Calera.

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The U.S. Supreme Court is Calera’s last chance of prevailing; but they do have some hope.  U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts wrote three years ago, “Things have changed in the South.”

Calera and Shelby County officials say that the provision is no longer needed.

In 2006, the City of Calera enacted a redistricting plan without approval of the DOJ.  Calera’s Black councilman, Ernest Montgomery, was then defeated. After the DOJ intervened another election was held and Mr. Montgomery regained his seat.

The State of Alabama has recently completed its own reapportionment plan of the state legislature.  That plan still has to be approved by the DOJ under Section 5 of the 1965 Voting Rights Act and some Democrats are suing the state arguing that the plans for the House and Senate are discriminatory because they pack too many Blacks into the majority minority districts.

Brandon Moseley is a former reporter at the Alabama Political Reporter.

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