Sep 21, 2011 10:58 AM by Lauren Wilson & AP
WASHINGTON (AP) - A federal judge on Wednesday dismissed a challenge to election monitoring for racial discrimination required under the Voting Rights Act.
U.S. District Judge John Bates ruled against Shelby County, Ala., which sued the Justice Department to stop that monitoring that occurs across much of the South. The county said it should no longer need federal approval before changing even minor election procedures such as moving a polling place or redrawing school district lines.
Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 relies heavily on patterns of past discrimination, such as literacy tests, poll taxes and other methods intended to keep blacks from voting, to determine which state, county and local governments must obtain "pre-clearance" for election changes.
Bates noted that this section has been alternatively called the centerpiece of the country's most effective civil rights law and an impermissible federal encroachment on state sovereignty.
Bates had appeared somewhat sympathetic to the county's arguments at a hearing in February and he questioned whether evidence of racial discrimination from four or five decades ago justified the continued election monitoring.
But he wrote in his 151-page opinion that judging the constitutionality of a law passed by Congress, particularly when it deals with racial discrimination at the ballot box, was a particularly sensitive duty. He said after reviewing 15,000 pages of records in support of lawmakers' 25-year extension of the law in 2006 that Congress was justified in finding that discrimination in the covered jurisdictions still existed.
The Justice Department, supported by several civil rights groups, had argued that new forms of discrimination are most common in jurisdictions with the most checkered racial pasts. They pointed to a variety of examples in which local governments have redrawn district lines or delayed elections in an effort to dilute minority voting strength.
The NAACP Legal Defense Fund said Calera, Ala., in Shelby County, eliminated its only black-majority city council district when it redrew the district lines in 2006. After the change, Calera's only African-American councilman, Ernest Montgomery, lost his seat. But citing the Voting Rights Act, the Justice Department under President George W. Bush voided the election and required Calera to redraw the boundaries, restoring the black-majority district. Montgomery was re-elected.
Shelby County had argued that alleged discriminatory activity takes place across the country, as much in New Jersey or Illinois as in the jurisdictions covered under the Voting Rights Act. The county's lawyers argued the law's formula doesn't relate to current conditions across the country and is unconstitutional.