the Voting Rights Act on Aug. 6, 1965.
After passage, Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr., the Republican of Wisconsin who then chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said, "This legislation proves our unbending commitment to voting rights." He wasn't the only one.
The question now is what Republicans in the Senate and House may do to fix the act if the Supreme Court overrules its key enforcement provision, Section 5. At least three members of the court are certain to choose that path and one, Chief Justice John Roberts, who opposed it as a young lawyer in the Reagan administration, seems very likely to do so again.
Section 5 is the heart and teeth of the Voting Rights Act. It mandates that any changes in voting laws that nine states and local jurisdictions in seven other states seek to make must get approval in advance from the U.S. Department of Justice. This pre-clearance was required in 1965 because, starting in the late 1870s, Jim Crow laws were passed to keep blacks from voting. Later, other jurisdictions were included under Section 5 because of their record of trying to disfranchise Latinos and American Indians.
But, starting with the debate over the 1982 renewal some Southerners claimed that the pre-clearance provision was unfair punishment for practices, like so-called "literacy" tests and poll taxes, that had been abandoned. Therefore, they argued, the laws were no longer needed and stigmatized states of the old Confederacy. That is the same argument that plaintiffs have put forth before the Supreme Court justices this year in the case of Shelby County [Alabama] v. Holder.
Among the other Republican backers of the 2006 renewal, Amanda Terkel reports, was John Boehner, House majority leader at the time. He voted against a couple of Republican-sponsored amendments to weaken Section 5, calling it "an effective tool in protecting a right that is fundamental to our democracy."
But when asked about it recently on "Meet the Press," he replied, "I think the Voting Rights Act has passed with large majorities in the House and Senate. I think it's something that has served our country well. But there is argument over a very small section of the Voting Rights Act, and that's what the court is going to consider."One could perhaps take heart from this vocal support. But given how the House of Representatives has worked to "fix" things lately, that obligation could be abandoned along with other commonsense approaches left Republicans are increasingly leaving on the roadside.
Sensenbrenner took issue with Boehner's characterization of Section 5 being a "small section" of the civil rights law.
"It's an important part of the Voting Rights Act. If it's struck down and fixable, Congress has the obligation to fix it," he said.