Civil Rights Advocates Express "Nervousness" in the Voting Rights Fight

At stake is a key provision that requires federal permission to make changes in voting procedures.

Posted: 02/27/2013 02:33 PM EST

Oral arguments have now begun in the case where the United States Supreme Court is expected to rule on a key provision in the Voting Rights Act of 1965. And it is causing some nervousness among civil rights activists who are uncertain how the court will rule.

The case centers on Section 5 of the legislation, which allows the federal government to determine whether various jurisdictions will be allowed to make voting changes in elections. The section of the law involves nine states, most of them in the South, requiring them to get federal permission before changing voting procedures.

Under the act, the Justice Department has the authority to block changes in election regulations if it determines that the modifications will weaken the voting power of minority Americans.

At stake is the very manner in which elections are conducted in the United States. The Supreme Court will rule on whether race is still a barrier to Americans being able to vote freely.

The case, Shelby County v. Holder, focuses on an area in Alabama that maintains that the history of racial discrimination in voting is now over and that it is unfair to single out various municipalities to undergo strict scrutiny in election changes when other cities and counties in the nation are exempt.

On the other hand, civil rights advocates and others have maintained that there remains a need to protect the rights of voters by oversight from the federal government. They cite the difficulties that would emerge as a result of various voter identification laws that are being considered by a number of states with Republican-controlled legislatures.

“Is there a need for nervousness? Absolutely,” said Hasan Kwame Jeffries, a professor of African-American history at Ohio State University, in an interview with BET.com. “The basic argument of conservatives is that times have changed and that there is an undue and unfair burden based on discrimination that existed in the past.”

But Jeffries added: “There is no greater sign of the need for continued oversight than what we saw since 2010, with state legislatures bending over backwards to make voting more difficult.”

What has added tension to the Supreme Court’s deliberations is the fact that four of the nine justices are viewed as being liberal and are expected to uphold the section of the law. On the other hand, the four conservative justices are expected to rule against the provision in the law.

Justice Anthony Kennedy is widely considered to be the swing vote in the case. The court is not expected to issue a ruling until June.

But the questioning from some of the justices has already given pause to some civil rights activists. For example, Justice Antonin Scalia called the provision a “perpetuation of racial entitlement.” Similarly, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. asked a sharp question: Are people in the South more racist than those in the North? And Justice Kennedy, at one point, asked how much longer Alabama would be compelled to live “under the trusteeship of the United States government.”

“There has been some nervousness, but I still feel some hopefulness,” said Edward Hailes Jr., the general counsel for the Advancement Project, a civil rights organization based in Washington, speaking in an interview with BET.com.

“There were tough questions asked, but the conservative justices still have to come back to the constitutional question as to whether Congress has the authority to reauthorize the measure,” Hailes said. “I think they will conclude that Congress does.”

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(Photo: AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

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