April 2015 Bar Bulletin
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April 2015 Bar Bulletin

Voting Rights CLE To Carry on Dr. King's Fight

By Jim Lobsenz


On August 6, we will celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The Act passed both the House (328–74) and the Senate (79–18) by overwhelming margins.

Almost immediately South Carolina challenged the constitutionality of the Act, but in South Carolina v. Katzenbach, 383 U.S. 301 (1966), the Supreme Court upheld it. After examining the Act's voluminous legislative history, the Warren Court concluded that in enacting the law Congress had simply recognized that "an insidious and pervasive evil ... had been perpetuated in certain parts of our country through unremitting and ingenious defiance of the Constitution," and that legislation was needed to provide a remedy for deliberate violations of the Fifteenth Amendment guarantee that a citizen's right to vote "shall not be denied or abridged ... on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude."

The Supreme Court noted that laws requiring literacy tests, property qualifications or "good character" tests were specifically designed to keep blacks from voting, and that the laws imposing these requirements were not equally enforced. Because efforts to invalidate these laws had "done little to cure the problem of voting discrimination," Congress enacted the Voting Rights Act.

But as the French say, the more things change, the more things stay the same. Literacy and "understanding" tests are a thing of the past, but "anti-fraud" identification laws and other practices have been proliferating rapidly in the past two or three years. Janai Nelson, deputy director of the NAACP Legal Defense & Education Fund, this year's speaker at KCBA's Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Luncheon warned that a new wave of assaults on voting rights has already begun.

In Shelby County v. Holder, 570 U.S. ___ (2013), the Supreme Court held that one of the provisions of the Voting Rights Act was no longer constitutional. The Court struck down the pre-clearance requirement of section 4 of the Act, which prevented certain types of laws from taking effect without the permission of the attorney general. It now remains to be seen whether Section 2 of the Act will suffice to strike down the spate of recently enacted voter identification laws that threaten to prevent the free exercise of the right to vote.

Believing that our commitment to the principles that Dr. King fought for should lead us to use our legal skills to continue to oppose threats to voter freedom, the MLK Luncheon Committee has organized a CLE dedicated to teaching lawyers how to litigate voting rights cases, oppose discriminatory legal devices that make voting more difficult or impossible, and extend voter freedom to those who face obstacles to exercising the right to vote.

The half-day CLE, scheduled for April 10, will cover both state and federal law. Speakers will address developments in cases likely to wind up in the U.S. Supreme Court and cases that have been litigated right here at home in Washington. The lawyers who recently successfully challenged Yakima's "at-large" voting districts will explain how they succeeded and what challenges lie ahead. Other presentations will discuss the ongoing effort to secure passage of a Washington State Voting Rights Act, state constitutional challenges that might be made to obstacles to voting and campaigning, and the threat to voter equality posed by legislative redistricting.

It may appear that threats to voter freedom are largely concentrated in other parts of the country. But as Dr. King wrote in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, "I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere."

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