Transcript: Press briefing Q&A on the Supreme Court’s decision to invalidate Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act

Partial transcript of press briefing Q&A on the Supreme Court’s decision to invalidate Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act in Shelby County v. Holder on June 25, 2013:

What would make you think that Congress could fix this given the dysfunctional nature of Congress?

Sherrilyn Ifill, President and Director-Counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund:
Congress has been dysfunctional before. This is not the first time. We should remember we’re talking about the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Congress was not a model of unity at that time nor was it over the last several reauthorizations of the Voting Rights Act. And what we should remember that overtime that the Voting Rights Act has been reauthorized, it was signed by President Reagan; it was signed by President Bush; that this is a piece of legislation that we recognize goes to the core of our democracy. And that’s why I think it’s so important that we recognize what has happened today. Because what has happened today is the ball has been thrown not only in Congress’s court but in our court. Because the reality is the only way Congress will act is if we call, if we march, if we pressure, if we make clear that we do not intend to go backwards on voting.

Some of the people standing behind me today, the people with the signs and our interns at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, weren’t even born when the Voting Rights Act was enacted. They have lived their whole lives with these protections. They have the settled expectation that they’re going to participate in a democracy that protects all voters. Are we prepared now to change that contract that we have with our young people? Are we prepared now to change America and to turn our back on them? I think it’s not only up to Congress but it’s up to us to demand as American citizens that this country will only go forward and will not go backwards.

The Supreme Court has failed minority voters today. But now Congress has to do the right thing. And for Congress to do the right thing, the only way they’ve done in the past, is because we demanded it. And so in many ways, although the ball’s in Congress’s court, the ball is in our court, and I hope that Americans of all races and of every jurisdiction in this country will feel that they have to stand up for the future of this country and they have to stand up for democratic participation in this country.

What people look at this country and they admire what America has been able to do over the last 50 years, they admire the progress that we made despite our history of slavery and racial discrimination and exclusion. That’s what makes us special to the rest of the world. Are we prepared to protect that legacy or are we willing to let that legacy go?

So we call up all Americans – this is not an issue just for civil rights advocates. This is not an issue just for African Americans or for Latinos. This is not just an issue for those in the south. This is the America we have all come to expect and that we have all come to enjoy and become proud of. And the question for us is are we willing to fight for it? We believe that this is the stance that American voters have to take today in light of the Supreme Court decision and they have to pressure Congress to do their job.

Barbara Arwine, President and Executive Director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights:
Thank you for your question. Clearly Congress has the ability to correct this decision today by passing new coverage formula. It will obviously have to undertake a different kind of consideration than it did in 2006, meaning that it’s going to have to go state-by-state, jurisdiction-by-jurisdiction and make specific findings. What I think it’s important is that for every person in America we pride ourselves on our democracy. We pride ourselves on the American people’s ability to go to the polls to elect the candidates of their choice. It is absolutely imperative that if you believe and care about your democracy that today you stand up and you say to your Congressman, to your Senator, that this decision is wrong and that you want to make sure that every American has the right to vote so that you demand that they pass a new Section 4 that will answer the court’s demands and will protect everyone. It is absolutely imperative. We will spend the next however many months it takes, the next however many years it takes. We will not sit down. We will not be silent. We will not accept the evisceration of our rights. We will fight every step of the day to make sure that voting rights are available to every single American and we will use every tool legally, organizationally, mobilization – we will do whatever is necessary to protect the rights of each and every American citizen.

Do you still believe that the south should be stigmatized when Congress acts on this?

Wade Henderson, President and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights:
The issue is not a geographic stigma. Ladies and gentlemen, Section 5 of the Voting Rights applies to Alaska, parts of New York, California. It applies to those jurisdiction with a history of both past discrimination and who over a decade have failed to seek to come out from under the Voting Rights Act as the law now permits. So those jurisdictions – the over 200 jurisdictions – that have petitioned to come out from under Section 5 have never been denied. The truth is this is not about a geographic stigma. That’s a myth. What we’re talking about is the act that guarantees the right to vote for every American, and the Voting Rights Act was an important tool to complement the 15th Amendment of the Constitution under which all Americans benefit. So I’m quite confident that the response in Congress will be a bipartisan response just as it was in 2006 and I think that all Americans who celebrate the importance of our democracy will be there in support of the reauthorization…

Sherrilyn Ifill, President and Director-Counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund:
…I think the premise of the question actually reveals the problem with the court’s decision today. Because the reality is the 15th Amendment does not ask what the court thinks about how to deal with voting discrimination in this country. It actually doesn’t matter what I think or even what you think. What the 15th Amendment did was it gave Congress the power to make the determination. So the only question is did Congress act responsibly? And when over 9 months Congress holds hearings – 52 hearings – amasses a 15,000-page record and looks at discrimination in the covered jurisdictions – not going back to 1965 but since the last reauthorization from 1982 to 2006 – and finds what it found – over 600 objections to voting based on intentional discrimination in the covered jurisdictions, then it is our job and, in my view and I think the Constitution contemplates that it’s the Supreme Court’s job, to allow Congress to exercise the authority it was given by the framers of the 15th Amendment. That’s what they did under Section 5 and under the coverage formula. And whether the court thinks it’s a stigma or whether you think it’s a stigma or whether even I think it’s a stigma is actually irrelevant so long as Congress acts responsibly and in 2006 they acted responsibly. And now we’re calling on them to do it again.

Armand Derfner, civil rights and voting rights attorney:
I’d like to respond to that question. Come to my state. Part of the problem is most of the Justices who joined in this opinion do not live in my part of the country but Congressmen and Senators who voted for the Voting Rights in 2006 and on occasions before that, they do live in our part of the country. We know that the job is not done. In South Carolina, Mississippi, Alabama, in other states, what the act does is a prod and a help to bring an end to discrimination, the end of practices that were bound in so long in our states. Human change does not come overnight. Human change does not come overnight, and therefore, it takes somebody from somewhere else to think that we don’t have a problem anymore. We do have a problem. Congress, including Congressmen and Senators, from our states recognize that we do have a problem, that the Voting Rights Act can help us overcome that problem and what we have today is a decision – mostly by Justices who sit far away in this city, which is not in any part of the country as far as I can tell – that “We don’t have a problem anymore” because they read the record differently than Congress so exhaustively did.

Do you have any message to the Department of Justice – is there any way the Department of Justice can get around this? Or does this take away pre-clearance utterly?

Barbara Arwine, President and Executive Director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights:
Well, it creates tremendous obstacles. What we do call upon the Department of Justice to do is to use its tool box of litigation, its tool box of providing guidance, its tool box of speaking to states to make sure that they do not run…over the rights of racial minorities.

I think it’s important to understand, to this question of stigma…that this court, its guarantee of equal justice under the law means that it has to look at the rights of the people. But what it did today was it went decades – almost a century – backwards and to talking about states’ rights again, sovereignty of states, what’s so important for states, and forgot its role of protecting voters, of protecting the American citizenry.

And it’s important for us, this tension that exists in our democracies, it’s important for us to not go backwards into the states’ rights doctrine. We know that the Chief Justice wrote this decision. We know what his ideology has been on the Voting Rights Act for decades. It’s no surprise that we have seen what he has predicted he wanted forever – to strike down this provision of the Voting Rights Act.

I am disappointed at his colleagues joined him, that they ran over the rights of Congress and that they forgot about their obligations, their deference to Congress, and that they have once again played the shell game of coming up with a new standard of review, meaning that they put a higher standard on Congress than was existed before this decision to come up with a new coverage formula…

At the same time, the tragedy of this decision is that all of this continues to happen against the backdrop of modern day voter suppression. Yesterday, Justice Ginsburg talked about you have to be an ostrich with your head in the sand to have not understood the necessity for affirmative action programs as a remedial device. Today, we see the ostrich with his head in the sand ignoring all of these states that have been passing these voter suppression laws, many of them – most of them from these covered jurisdictions, and the court erred in letting Shelby County, which not only discriminated in 2002 but discriminate again in voting in 2008 – found by the courts to have discriminated, not just a pre-clearance decision by the Department of Justice but found by the court itself. To allow this county with its dirty hands to come before the court and to undo such an important law is absolutely an American tragedy.

And it calls upon this Congress, it calls upon the American people to do what we must do to rise up and demand the court deliver what its duty is and that is the duty of justice.


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2 Comments on “Transcript: Press briefing Q&A on the Supreme Court’s decision to invalidate Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act

  1. Pingback: Transcript: Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights President Barbara Arwine's remarks on the Supreme Court decision to invalidate Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act | What The Folly?!

  2. Pingback: Transcript: NAACP Legal Defense Fund Director Ryan Haygood's remarks on the Supreme Court's decision to invalidate Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act | What The Folly?!

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