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NAMUDNO v. Holder

NAMUDNO v. Holder involves a constitutional challenge to the Voting Rights Act, perhaps the country’s single most successful piece of civil rights legislation.

Published: June 22, 2009

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On June 22, 2009, an eight-member majority of the Supreme Court avoided a constitutional challenge to the Voting Rights Act, perhaps the country’s single most successful piece of civil rights legislation, in its decision in NAMUDNO v. Holder today.  The Court did not take up the argument brought by a small utility district in Austin, Texas that Congress did not have the power to enact Section 5, a key provision of the Act, and instead held that the district could apply for an exemption to that provision.

Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act requires certain designated states and local governments to “preclear” any proposed changes to their voting systems with the Department of Justice before the changes go into effect. The purpose of the preclearance process is to make sure that the changes in election practices do not have a detrimental effect on the voting rights of racial, ethnic, or language minorities. The preclearance requirement has been one of the most successful provisions of the Voting Rights Act, deterring and preventing many voting changes that would have harmed minority electoral participation and representation.

The Court concluded that the Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District No. 1 (“NAMUDNO”), a small political subunit formed in the late 1980s at the northern edge of Travis County to provide specified utilities to the largely wealthy and white residents of the area, had the ability to seek a statutory exemption from the pre-clearance requirements of the Act.  The Court’s decision preserved all aspects of the Voting Rights Act, but overruled the lower court’s decision that NAMUDNO was ineligible for this exemption.

On March 25, 2009, Brennan Center for Justice filed an amicus brief in support of the Act in the U.S. Supreme Court arguing that the history of the 15th Amendment confirms that its framers intended to give Congress broad authority to protect the fundamental right to vote from racial discrimination and fully justifies the Court giving special deference to Congress’s judgments in exercising that authority.

On May 15, 2007, Brennan Center filed an amicus brief in support of defendant and defendant-intervenors’ motion for summary judgment in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, seeking to defend the constitutionality of the Voting Rights Act. The Center’s brief argued that Congress’s decision to reauthorize Section 5 should be afforded great deference from the courts because it comes under Congress’s broad power to enforce the 15th Amendment. Congress is entitled to a great deal of latitude when acting pursuant to its 15th Amendment enforcement powers to protect a fundamental right and prevent an injury based on account of race.

Selected documents can be found below. All legal documents related to case may be found here.

District Court Papers

Supreme Court Papers

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