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
- Supreme Court Opinion in Shelby County v. Holder
- Petition for a Writ of Certiorari by Shelby County
- Brief in Opposition for Respondents-Intervenors on Petition for a Writ of Certiorari
- Brief for Petitioner, filed by Shelby County
- Brief for Respondent-Intervenor Bobby Lee Harris, filed by the Lawyers’ Committee
- Brief for Respondent-Intervenors Bobby Pierson, Willie Goldsmith, Sr., Mary Paxton-Lee, Kenneth Dukes, and Alabama State Conference of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, filed by ACLU and NAACP
- Brief for Respondent-Intervenors Earl Cunningham, Harry Jones, Albert Jones, Ernest Montgomery, Anthony Vines, and William Walker, filed by the NAACP Legal Defense & Educational Fund, Inc.
- Brief for the Federal Respondent, filed by the Department of Justice
- Reply Brief for Petitioner, filed by Shelby County
Amicus Briefs in Support of Respondents:
- Alabama Legislative Black Caucus and Alabama Association of Black County Officials
- Alaska Federation of Natives, Alaska Native Voters, and Tribes
- American Bar Association
- Asian American Public Interest Groups
- Bailed out jurisdictions
- The Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law
- Congressman John Lewis
- Constitutional law scholars and the Constitutional Accountability Center
- Dick Thornburgh, Drew S. Days, III, John R. Dunne, Bill Lann Lee, J. Stanley Pottinger, Paul F. Hancock, James P. Turner, William R. Yeomans, Brian K. Landsberg, and Gilda R. Daniels
- Ellen D. Katz and the Voting Rights Initiative
- Gabriel Chin, Atiba Ellis, Christopher S. Elmendorf, Janai S. Nelson, Bertrall Ross, Daniel Tokaji, and Franita Tolson
- Historians and social scientists
- Joaquin Avila, Neil Bradley, Julius Chambers, U.W. Clemon, Armand Derfner, Jose Garza, Fred Gray, Robert McDuff, Rolando Rios, Robert Rubin, Edward Still, Ellis Turnage, and Ronald Wilson
- The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights and the Leadership Conference Education Fund et al.
- Marcia L. Fudge, member of Congress and chair of the Congressional Black Caucus; Rubén Hinojosa, member of Congress and chair of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus; and Judy Chu, member of Congress and chair of the congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus et al.
- National Bar Association
- National Latino Organizations
- National Lawyers Guild
- Navajo Nation, Leonard Gorman, Anthony Wounded Head, Sr., and Oliver J. Semans, Sr.
- New York City, the Council of the City of New York, Michael R. Bloomberg, and Christine C. Quinn
- Political science and law professors
- Professor Patricia A. Broussard, Sabrina Collins, Stacy Hane, Akunna Olumba, and named students and organizations of Florida A & M University College of Law
- Professors Richard L. Engstrom, Theodore S. Arrington, and David T. Canon
- Section 5 litigation intervenors
- Senator C. Bradley Hutto, Senator Gerald Malloy, Senator John L. Scott, Jr., Representative Gilda Cobb-Hunter, and the League of Women Voters of South Carolina
- Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid
- States of New York, California, Mississippi, and North Carolina
- Veterans of the Mississippi Civil Rights Movement
Amicus Briefs in Support of Shelby County:
- Abraham Lincoln Foundation, Foundation for Public Policy Research, Inc., America’s Prayer Network, Christians Reviving America’s Values, U.S. Justice Foundation, and Conservative Legal Defense and Education Fund
- State of Alabama
- State of Alaska
- American Unity Legal Defense Fund
- States of Arizona, Georgia, South Carolina, and South Dakota
- Cato Institute
- Center for Constitutional Jurisprudence
- Former government officials
- Judicial Education Project
- Justice and Freedom Fund
- Landmark Legal Foundation
- Mountain States Legal Foundation
- National Black Chamber of Commerce
- John Nix, Anthony Cuomo, Dr. Abigail Thernstrom
- Pacific Legal Foundation, Center for Equal Opportunity, and American Civil Rights Foundation
- Project 21
- Reason Foundation
- Southeastern Legal Foundation
- State of Texas
Amicus Brief in Support of No Party:
Appellate Court Documents
District Court Documents
Briefs filed by the Lawyers’ Committee:
- Memorandum in Support of its Motion to Intervene as Defendant
- Memorandum in Support of Defendant-Intervenor Bobby Lee Harris’ Motion for Summary Judgment
- Reply Brief in Support of Defendant-Intervenor Bobby Lee Harris’ Motion for Summary Judgment and in Opposition to Plaintff’s Motion for Summary Judgment
- Brief of Defendant-Intervenor Bobby Lee Harris Concerning Coverage under Section 4(B) of the Voting Rights Act
- Brief on behalf of Intervenors-Appellees filed before the United States District Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia.
Filed by the Department of Justice:
- Defendant’s Memorandum of Law in Opposition of Plaintiff’s Motion for Summary Judgment and in Support of Defendant’s Motion for Summary Judgment
- Attorney General’s Consolidated Reply Memorandum in Opposition to Plaintiff’s Motion for Summary Judgment and in Support of Defendant’s Motion for Summary Judgment
- Attorney General’s Supplemental Memorandum
Filed by the NAACP LDF and ACLU:
- Defendant-Intervenors’ Cross Motion for Summary Judgment
- Defendant-Intervenors’ Consolidated Memorandum of Points and Authorities in Opposition to Plaintiff’s Motion for Summary Judgment and in Support of Cunningham Defendant-Intervenor’s Cross Motion for Summary Judgment
- Cunningham and Pierson Defendant-Intervenors’ Reply Memorandum of Points and Authorities in Support of Cross Motion for Summary Judgment and in Opposition to Plaintiff’s Motion for Summary Judgment
- Defendant-Intervenors’ Consolidated Supplemental Memorandum of Points and Authorities in Support of Cross Motions for Summary Judgment
Filed by the Plaintiff:
- Complaint filed by Shelby County
- Motion for Summary Judgment
- Plaintiff’s Consolidated Reply Memorandum in Support of its Motion for Summary Judgment and in Opposition to Defendant’s and Defendant-Intervenors’ Cross Motions for Summary Judgment
- Plaintiff’s Supplemental Memorandum in Support of its Motion for Summary Judgment and in Opposition to Defendant’s and Defendant-Intervenors’ Cross Motions for Summary Judgment