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June 24, 2016 0

Three Years After Shelby County, Voters Are Really Getting Soaked

This week­end marks the third anniver­sary of Shelby County v. Holder, in which the Supreme Court, by a  nar­row 5–4 mar­gin, struck down key rain umbrellapro­tec­tions of the land­mark Vot­ing Rights Act of 1965 (VRA), essen­tially gut­ting the heart of the nation’s most impor­tant and effec­tive civil rights law.  We were reminded of the dan­ger­ous strug­gles to enact this law when, ear­lier this week, the Depart­ment of Jus­tice closed its inves­ti­ga­tion into the mur­ders of three civil rights work­ers (Andrew Good­man, Michael Schw­erner, and James Chaney) killed by the Klan as they were work­ing to reg­is­ter vot­ers in Mis­sis­sippi in June, 1964.

Sec­tion 5 of the VRA requires that, in cer­tain juris­dic­tions with a his­tory of dis­crim­i­na­tory vot­ing prac­tices, the fed­eral gov­ern­ment must approve any changes in elec­tion laws, such as changes in polling site loca­tions and redraw­ing con­gres­sional dis­trict lines.  The juris­dic­tions that were required to sub­mit changes were deter­mined by a for­mula based on a his­tory of dis­crim­i­na­tory vot­ing prac­tices. The Court held this for­mula uncon­sti­tu­tional, say­ing that the for­mula was out of date.  In doing so, the Court sub­sti­tuted its views for Congress’s own very exten­sive hear­ings and find­ings con­ducted in 2006 when Con­gress almost unan­i­mously voted to reau­tho­rize the VRA for another 25 years. In Shelby County, the Court specif­i­cally invited Con­gress to cre­ate a new cov­er­age formula.

Jus­tice Ginsburg’s pow­er­ful dis­sent in the case analo­gized strik­ing down key parts of the VRA to “throw­ing away your umbrella in a rain­storm because you are not get­ting wet.” Unfor­tu­nately, Jus­tice Ginsburg’s pre­dic­tion that, with­out the pro­tec­tions of the VRA, voter sup­pres­sion prob­lems would again rain down on those for­merly cov­ered juris­dic­tions, has proven quite prescient.

In fact, there is grow­ing evi­dence that the rul­ing has had a dev­as­tat­ing impact on bal­lot access and vot­ing rights in those previously-covered VRA juris­dic­tions.  A dis­crim­i­na­tory redis­trict­ing plan and harsh voter ID law in Texas – which had been part of sub­mit­ted plans that the Jus­tice Depart­ment and fed­eral courts had specif­i­cally refused to pre­clear the pre­vi­ous year – threaten to dis­en­fran­chise hun­dreds of thou­sands of eli­gi­ble African Amer­i­can and Latino vot­ers. In Alabama, fol­low­ing the enact­ment of a restric­tive voter ID law, DMV offices were closed in coun­ties with some of the high­est minor­ity pop­u­la­tions, mak­ing it much more dif­fi­cult to obtain IDs nec­es­sary to vote.  North Car­olina passed one of the harsh­est, most restric­tive vot­ing laws in the coun­try. And in Ari­zona we saw in the pri­mary elec­tion ear­lier this year that thou­sands of peo­ple could not vote because Mari­copa County, the largest county in the state, dropped from more than 400 polling places to just 60. Over­all in 2016, accord­ing to the Bren­nan Cen­ter for Jus­tice, 17 states have new vot­ing restric­tions in place.

Now, as vot­ers face the prospect of the first Pres­i­den­tial elec­tion in 50 years with­out the robust pro­tec­tions of the VRA, there are dire dis­crim­i­na­tory warn­ing signs – unless Con­gress acts,

A bipar­ti­san bill pend­ing now before Con­gress, the Vot­ing Rights Advance­ment Act, would cre­ate a mod­ern for­mula for pre­clear­ance and put in place much-needed vot­ing rights pro­tec­tions. On this third anniver­sary of Shelby County, all Amer­i­cans should learn about the impor­tant legacy of the VRA – and take action to urge Con­gress to restore the full vital­ity of the VRA by enact­ing the Vot­ing Rights Advance­ment Act.

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March 1, 2016 2

Alito Got It Right In Jewish Inmate Case

Yes­ter­day, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to review a trou­bling lower court deci­sion involv­ing the reli­gious lib­erty rights of an obser­vant Jew­ish inmate from North Car­olina.  In a pow­er­ful dis­sent, Jus­tice Alito pointed out why the lower court was wrong and his fel­low Jus­tices should have taken up the case.supreme-court

Israel Ben-Levi claimed that the North Car­olina Depart­ment of Pub­lic Safety (NCDPS) vio­lated his rights under the Free Exer­cise Clause and Reli­gious Land Use and Insti­tu­tion­al­ized Per­sons Act (RLUIPA) by deny­ing his request to study Torah with two other Jew­ish inmates.  In reject­ing his request, NCDPS asserted that the inmate mis­un­der­stood his own faith.  For a group to study Torah, NCDPS claimed, there must be ten Jew­ish men – a minyan – or qual­i­fied Jew­ish leader such as Rabbi.  The lower court agreed with this argu­ment and also found Mr. Ben-Levi was not sub­ject to future harm because he had been trans­ferred to a prison with a Rabbi.

Jus­tice Alito’s dis­sent cor­rectly pointed out that this deci­sion was dis­crim­i­na­tory “[b]ecause NCDPS’s pol­icy rests on its under­stand­ing of Jew­ish doc­trine, the pol­icy does not apply to other reli­gions.”  Fur­ther­more, it vio­lates long­stand­ing First Amend­ment case law against gov­ern­ment inter­pret­ing reli­gious doctrine:

[F]ederal courts have no war­rant to eval­u­ate  “the valid­ity of [Ben-Levi’s] inter­pre­ta­tions.” … By ignor­ing Ben-Levi’s actual beliefs and focus­ing solely on NCDPS’s under­stand­ing of Judaism, respon­dent and the courts below con­sid­ered the wrong question.  

Although the Supreme Court’s rejec­tion of the case does not approve of the lower court deci­sion, we could not agree more with Jus­tice Alito that “the Court’s indif­fer­ence to this dis­crim­i­na­tory infringe­ment of reli­gious lib­erty is disappointing.”

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September 11, 2015 1

Marching for Fairness – the NAACP Journey for Justice

After par­tic­i­pat­ing in the his­toric vot­ing rights march from Selma to Mont­gomery on March 21, 1965, Rabbi Abram­son Joshua Hes­chel famously said:

“For many of us the march from Selma to Mont­gomery was about protest and prayer. Legs are not lips and walk­ing is not kneel­ing. And yet our legs uttered songs. Even with­out words, our march was wor­ship. I felt my legs were praying.”

Sandmel

ADL Direc­tor of Inter­faith Affairs Rabbi David Sand­mel and NAACP Pres­i­dent and CEO Cor­nell Brooks on the road to Wash­ing­ton DC as part of the Jour­ney for Justice.

 

That march played a sig­nif­i­cant role in prompt­ing Con­gress to enact the land­mark Vot­ing Rights Act of 1965 (VRA) – per­haps the most impor­tant and effec­tive civil rights leg­is­la­tion ever passed.   In the half cen­tury since then, the VRA has secured and safe­guarded the right to vote for mil­lions of Amer­i­cans. Its suc­cess in elim­i­nat­ing dis­crim­i­na­tory bar­ri­ers to full civic par­tic­i­pa­tion and in advanc­ing equal polit­i­cal par­tic­i­pa­tion at all lev­els of gov­ern­ment is undeniable.

Some­times legs pray.

And some­times legs carry you to Wash­ing­ton DC to demand progress toward jus­tice and fair treat­ment for all.

Today, fifty years after the pas­sage of the VRA, and two years after a deeply trou­bling Supreme Court deci­sion that essen­tially gut­ted the heart of the leg­is­la­tion — marchers are on their way to Wash­ing­ton to demand vot­ing rights pro­tec­tions again.  The NAACP has orga­nized America’s Jour­ney for Jus­tice, which started in Selma on August 1.  The Anti-Defamation League is one of the sup­port­ing orga­ni­za­tions for the 1000-mile march, as we had sup­ported the orig­i­nal Selma to Mont­gomery march.  Then-ADL National Direc­tor Ben Epstein wrote,

“We walked together—more than 3,000 Amer­i­cans: Negroes and whites, min­is­ters, rab­bis, Catholic nuns, stu­dents, rep­re­sen­ta­tives of orga­ni­za­tions, those who belonged to no group other than the human race—all in peace­ful demon­stra­tion against blind vio­lence, in ‘gigan­tic wit­ness’ to the con­sti­tu­tion­ally guar­an­teed right of all cit­i­zens to reg­is­ter and vote.”

Jour­ney to Jus­tice cul­mi­nates in an Advo­cacy Day on the Cap­i­tal Hill on Sep­tem­ber 16.  Marchers and their sup­port­ers will have dozens of meet­ings with Mem­bers of the House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives and the Sen­ate.  The prin­ci­pal focal point for the lob­by­ing will be the need to address the dev­as­tat­ing impact of Shelby County v. Holder, a 2013 Supreme Court deci­sion which gut­ted a key pro­vi­sion of the VRA, dra­mat­i­cally lim­it­ing its effec­tive­ness and reach.

Last Novem­ber – the first major elec­tion since Shelby County – there were new restric­tions on vot­ing in 15 states, endan­ger­ing vot­ing rights for hun­dreds of thou­sands of Amer­i­cans. From voter ID laws that threaten to dis­en­fran­chise African Amer­i­cans, Lati­nos, stu­dents and elderly vot­ers, to cuts to early vot­ing and oner­ous require­ments for voter reg­is­tra­tion, the right to vote is in peril.

The proper response to the Shelby County deci­sion is the bipar­ti­san Vot­ing Rights Advance­ment Act of 2015 (S. 1659/H.R. 2867).  The VRAA reasserts appro­pri­ate fed­eral over­sight over efforts to change state and local vot­ing laws and pro­vides addi­tional safe­guards for voting.

Since, 1965 reaf­firm­ing the nation’s com­mit­ment to full vot­ing rights for all has never been con­tro­ver­sial.  Each time the VRA came up for reau­tho­riza­tion it has received over­whelm­ing, bipar­ti­san Con­gres­sional sup­port.  The last time Con­gress extended the VRA, in 2006, it did so after an exhaus­tive hear­ings on vot­ing dis­crim­i­na­tion and the impact of the VRA – result­ing in thou­sands of pages of doc­u­men­ta­tion.  The leg­is­la­tion passed over­whelm­ingly: 390 to 33 in the House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives and 98–0 in the Senate.

As we have com­mem­o­rated the 50th anniver­sary of the Vot­ing Rights Act (VRA) this sum­mer, we have been reminded just how far we have come – how impact­ful the VRA has been in ensur­ing the rights of all Amer­i­cans to have their say in our democ­racy.   Jour­ney for Jus­tice marchers and their sup­port­ers are demon­strat­ing that Con­gress must do more than merely com­mem­o­rate anniver­saries of his­toric civil rights vic­to­ries.  They must act.  Now is the time for Con­gress to act to restore the pro­tec­tions of the VRA and secure the right to vote for all Americans.

 

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