The U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, DC (AP)
Mary Orndorff Troyan, Gannett Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON - Black elected officials from Alabama and some of the state's most prominent civil rights lawyers are urging the Supreme Court to preserve key provisions of the 1965 Voting Rights Act in a case the court will hear later this month.
The county that wants the court to overturn those provisions also is located in Alabama.
Officials in Shelby County say the disputed Voting Rights Act provisions unfairly burden their county and other locations by requiring them to get federal approval before making any changes to their elections procedures.
That "pre-clearance" requirement targets all or part of 16 states, including Alabama, that have a history of discriminating against minorities at the ballot box.
A number of local groups and individuals - the Alabama Legislative Black Caucus, the Alabama Association of Black County Officials, former U.S. District Judge U.W. Clemon of Birmingham and attorney Fred Gray of Tuskegee, who represented Rosa Parks - have filed court papers opposing Shelby County's arguments.
The Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in the case on Feb. 27.
"The voting strength of blacks in this nation is being compromised on so many fronts these days," said Clemon, now in private practice.
He joined a brief with other civil rights attorneys from around the country who say that without Section 5, private lawsuits would be the only way to stop discrimination at the ballot box - after it's already occurred. Section 5 is designed to prevent such discrimination before it starts.
"It would be so different if race were no longer a factor in American life, but unfortunately it still is," Clemon said.
A key question before the Supreme Court is whether the South would backslide into discriminatory voting practices without the supervision of the Justice Department.
Shelby County, joined by Alabama state officials, says it won't. The state's black elected officials say it will.
"Absent the protection of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, we have no doubt that the efforts of majority-white state and local governments to isolate and minimize the political influence of black Alabamians will advance rapidly and far outstrip our resources to combat them," according to the brief filed by James Blacksher of Birmingham, the attorney representing the black elected officials.
When Congress renewed the Voting Rights Act in 2006, it was the first time in the law's 41-year history that every state covered by Section 5 was represented in Congress by at least one black House member who could participate in the debate.
Legislation to renew the law was approved by huge bipartisan margins. At the time, Alabama had more than 870 black elected officials.
"The complex question whether the descendants of American slaves are now full partners in constitutional democracy should be decided through political discourse between the representatives of African-Americans and all other American citizens, not through judicial fiat," Blacksher said in court papers.
Shelby County's lawsuit is being financed by the Project on Fair Representation, a non-profit legal defense fund that opposes the use of race in public policy. The county lost the case twice in federal courts before appealing to the Supreme Court.