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Shelby Co. v. Holder

In April 2010, Shelby County, Alabama (a largely white suburb of Birmingham) filed suit in federal court in Washington, DC asking that Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act be declared unconstitutional.  Shelby County, Alabama v. Holder, No. 1:10-cv-00651 (D.D.C.).  The county asserts that Congress exceeded its constitutional authority when, in 2006, it reauthorized Section 5 for another 25 years.  On June 25, 2013, the Supreme Court ruled that the coverage formula reauthorized by Congress is unconstitutional.

Section 5 requires that certain States and localities, located primarily in the South and Southwest, obtain federal preclearance for all voting changes before they may be implemented.  To obtain preclearance, a jurisdiction must demonstrate that the change neither has a discriminatory purpose nor a discriminatory effect.

On August 25, 2010, the Lawyers’ Committee intervened in the lawsuit to defend the constitutionality of Section 5.  The Lawyers’ Committee is representing Bobby Lee Harris, a former council member of the Town of Alabaster, Alabama (located in Shelby County).  Attorney General Holder is the named defendant in the case and other Shelby County residents also have also intervened as defendants (represented by the NAACP LDF and the ACLU Voting Rights Project).

On September 21, 2011, the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia upheld the constitutionality of Congress’ 2006 reauthorization of Section 5, rejecting Shelby County’s challenge.  The opinion can be found here.  An analysis of this opinion can be found here.

On May 18, 2012, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit affirmed the district court ruling, by a vote of two to one.  The court summarized its decision as follows:  “Congress drew reasonable conclusions from the extensive evidence it gathered and acted pursuant to the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, which entrust Congress with ensuring that the right to vote-surely among the most important guarantees of political liberty in the Constitution-is not abridged on account of race.  In this context, we owe much deference to the considered judgment of the People’s elected representatives.”  The opinion can be found here.

Shelby County then appealed to the Supreme Court, and the Court accepted the case.  On January 25, 2013, the Lawyers’ Committee filed its brief in support of the lower court rulings.  We argued that Congress appropriately found in 2006 that pervasive discrimination in voting has persisted in the areas subject to Section 5, and therefore Congress properly concluded that there is a continuing need for the preclearance remedy.  We further argued that Congress also appropriately determined that voting discrimination elsewhere in the country is much less severe, and therefore Congress properly concluded that the Section 5’s geographic coverage should not be altered.  Oral argument occurred on February 27, 2013, and a decision was released on June 25, 2013.

In its 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court held that Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act, which establishes the formula that determines which jurisdictions must comply with Section 5 preclearance, is unconstitutional and can no longer be used. In the majority opinion, Chief Justice Roberts writes, “We issue no holding on [Section] 5 itself, only on the coverage formula. Congress may draft another formula based on current conditions.”

The Lawyers’ Committee has played a central role in seeking to ensure that Section 5 continues to protect minority voters against discriminatory voting changes.  In 2005, the Lawyers’ Committee established the National Commission on the Voting Rights Act to determine whether serious and widespread discrimination in voting has continued in the jurisdictions covered by Section 5.  In February 2006, the Commission issued a detailed report on its findings, and Congress then relied on the Commission’s report when it concluded, later that year, that Section 5 should again be reauthorized.

Section 5 was originally enacted in 1965, and has proved itself to be one of the important provisions of what often has been called the most effective civil rights law enacted by Congress.  Congress initially provided that Section 5 was to terminate after five years; however, Congress repeatedly has renewed Section 5, after finding that there is a continuing need for its protections.

The Lawyers’ Committee also intervened to defend the constitutionality of the 2006 reauthorization in Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District No. 1 v. Holder.  The Supreme Court ultimately decided not to resolve the issue in that case, because the Court determined that the plaintiff in that case – a municipal utility district in Texas – might be able to “bail out” from Section 5 coverage.  557 U.S. 193 (2009).

Supreme Court Documents

Amicus Briefs in Support of Respondents:

Amicus Briefs in Support of Shelby County:

Amicus Brief in Support of No Party:

Appellate Court Documents

District Court Documents

Briefs filed by the Lawyers’ Committee:

Filed by the Department of Justice:

Filed by the NAACP LDF and ACLU:

Filed by the Plaintiff:

District Court – Other:

Other Documents

Section 5 Flyer


Posted on

June 22, 2015