Voting case to high court

Adam Liptak / New York Times News Service /

EVERGREEN, Ala. — Jerome Gray, a 74-year-old black man, has voted in every election since 1974 in this verdant little outpost of some 4,000 people halfway between Mobile and Montgomery. Casting a ballot, he said, is a way to honor the legacy of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, a civil rights landmark born from a bloody confrontation 70 miles north of here, in Selma.

The franchise remains fragile in Evergreen, Gray said. Last summer, he was kicked off the voting rolls by a clerk who had improperly culled the list based on utility records.

A three-judge federal court in Mobile barred the city from using the new voting list, invoking Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, which requires many state and local governments, mostly in the South, to obtain permission from the Justice Department or from a federal court in Washington before making changes that affect voting.

That provision is also at the heart of one of the marquee cases of the Supreme Court’s term, Shelby County v. Holder, No. 12-96, which will be argued on Feb. 27. It was brought by Shelby County, near Birmingham, and it contends that the provision has outlived its purpose of protecting minority voters in an era when a black man has been re-elected to the presidency.

The Voting Rights Act was a triumph of the civil rights movement. It was a response, the Supreme Court said in upholding it in 1966, to “an insidious and pervasive evil which had been perpetuated in certain parts of our country through unremitting and ingenious defiance of the Constitution.”

Congress was entitled, the court went on, “to limit its attention to the geographic areas where immediate action seemed necessary.”

Lawmakers chose the areas to be covered based on a formula that considered whether they had used devices to discourage voting, like literacy tests, and data from the 1964 election.

The court in Mobile this month said the case before it, concerning Evergreen, was simple: Because the city had not obtained preclearance from federal authorities, it could not revise its voting list using utility records. Nor could it use a municipal redistricting plan enacted by the City Council that had concentrated blacks voters, who are in the majority, into just two of the five districts, limiting black voting power.

It is not clear when the municipal election, originally scheduled for August 2012, will be held.

A lawyer for Evergreen, James Anderson, said the ruling was justified.

“The way the voter list was recomposed was improper,” he said. He added that the redistricting plan “could possibly be adopted by the Justice Department, but we need to tweak it a little bit.” In a court filing on Feb. 11, the city announced that it would create a third majority-black district “to have a total black population in the vicinity of 65 percent.”