AP: Residents oppose challenge to Alabama voting rights law
BIRMINGHAM — Some black residents in Shelby County, backed by the NAACP and ACLU, are seeking to challenge the county's attempt to have parts of the Voting Rights Act ruled unconstitutional.
The county's lawsuit contends that conditions that kept minorities from voting years ago are a thing of the past.
The U.S. Department of Justice this week responded for the first time to the lawsuit, in which the county asked for a summary judgment. The government said in a motion that the U.S. attorney general opposes a summary judgment and has had no opportunity to gather information in the case.
The county in seeking a summary judgment argued there was no dispute in the facts of the case and asked that a judge go ahead and rule in its favor.
On Tuesday the ACLU, on behalf of three black Montevallo voters, including City Councilman Willie Goldsmith; a white voter from Sterrett; and the Alabama branch of the NAACP, asked a judge for permission to intervene in the case.
Last week, six black Shelby County residents, backed by the national NAACP office, filed a motion to intervene in the case to defend the constitutionality of the Voting Rights Act. They argue that parts of the law being challenged by the county are still needed to protect the rights of minority voters.
Shelby County's lawsuit, filed in April, challenges parts of the Voting Rights Act that require governmental bodies in mostly Southern states to get permission from the Justice Department for any changes made that are related to voting.
The intent of the act is to make sure the voting changes do not disenfranchise minority voters. The county — which is getting free legal work in the case from The Project on Fair Representation, a Washington-based group of lawyers — says some requirements of the act were wrongly reauthorized by Congress in 2006 using outdated data, and are not needed because minority voters are no longer kept from the ballot box and minorities hold many offices now.
Shelby County says it vigorously supports enforcement of some parts of the Voting Rights Act, but says the county no longer should have to abide by what it deems burdensome and illegal aspects of the law.
"For Congress to continue to interfere with Shelby County's electoral autonomy in 2010 based on conditions that existed in 1965 is both arbitrary and without constitutional justification," lawyers for the county argued in a motion.
The county argues that it and others should not have to bear the cost and spend time seeking federal government approval for changes, no matter how small.
Attorneys for the county outline two conditions that landed Shelby County under the requirement in the first place — a finding in 1965 that Alabama was using a prohibited "test or device" to register voters, and a determination that less than 50 percent of voting-age residents in Alabama voted in the 1964 presidential election.
Neither condition still exists, Shelby County's attorneys say. They argue that if Congress had used updated voting data when it reauthorized the Voting Rights Act in 2006, Shelby County would no longer have to get permission from the government to make voting-related changes.
In filing the suit for the county, The Project on Fair Representation said the Shelby County case "will resolve the important question left unanswered" last year when the Supreme Court left undecided the constitutionality of preclearance for voting changes in a closely watched case from Texas.
The national NAACP, in a motion asking to be heard in the Shelby County case, said, "Voting discrimination in Alabama has proven to be persistent, adaptive and present in the modern day. Evidence reveals that many jurisdictions, including plaintiff Shelby County, continue to disregard the mandate of Section 5" of the Voting Rights Act.
Section 5 requires permission from the government to make voting-related changes. Lawyers from the national NAACP are representing the six residents seeking to intervene in the case, including former Shelby County Commissioner Earl Cunningham, who held office as a Republican; and current Calera City Councilman Ernest Montgomery, who won a second term after the Justice Department during the George W. Bush administration objected to Calera's redistricting plan for the 2008 city elections.
Redistricting, the drawing of new voting districts, is the kind of voting change that governmental bodies such as Shelby County must have approved by the Justice Department.
The Justice Department objected to Calera's 2008 redistricting plan because it eliminated the only council district with a majority of black voters. The city was forced to hold a second election, which allowed Montgomery to retain his seat.