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Shelby County v. Holder (Amicus Brief)

Published: June 25, 2013

The Voting Rights Act was passed in 1965 to ensure state and local govern­ments do not pass laws or policies that deny Amer­ican citizens the equal right to vote based on race. On June 25, 2013, the Supreme Court swept away a key provi­sion of this land­mark civil rights law in Shelby County v. Holder.

In April 2010, Shelby County, Alabama filed suit asking a federal court in Wash­ing­ton, DC to declare Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act uncon­sti­tu­tional. Section 5 is a key part of the Voting Rights Act, requir­ing certain juris­dic­tions with a history of discrim­in­a­tion to submit any proposed changes in voting proced­ures to the U.S. Depart­ment of Justice or a federal district court in D.C. – before it goes into effect – to ensure the change would not harm minor­ity voters. In Septem­ber 2011, the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia upheld the consti­tu­tion­al­ity of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, and in May 2012, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit agreed with the district court that Section 5 was consti­tu­tional. Shelby County appealed the ruling to the Supreme Court, and the Supreme Court agreed to take the case in Novem­ber 2012.

The Bren­nan Center filed an amicus brief on behalf of those defend­ing Section 5, arguing that the Fifteenth Amend­ment was designed to give Congress the author­ity to protect against discrim­in­a­tion in voting rights, and Congress’s broad enforce­ment author­ity is entitled special defer­ence by the Courts. Moreover, the amicus brief argues that the Fifteenth Amend­ment provides Congress the flex­ib­il­ity to address all prac­tices which abridge the right to vote, includ­ing vote dilu­tion.

On June 25, 2013, the Supreme Court ruled that the cover­age formula in Section 4(b) of the Voting Rights Act — which determ­ines which juris­dic­tions are covered by Section 5 — is uncon­sti­tu­tional because it is based on an old formula. As a prac­tical matter this means that Section 5 is inop­er­able until Congress enacts a new cover­age formula, which the decision invited Congress to do. The Bren­nan Center’s state­ment on the decision is avail­able here.

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Amicus Briefs Filed On Behalf of Respond­ent and/or Respond­ent-Inter­ven­ors