Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Voting Rights Act and the South on trial

By Jeffrey Toobin, CNN Senior Legal Analyst,
updated 12:33 PM EST, Fri November 23, 2012
Emmitt Coleman, 81, relaxes after voting in Alabama. An Alabama county has taken the Voting Rights Act to the Supreme Court.
Emmitt Coleman, 81, relaxes after voting in Alabama. An Alabama county has taken the Voting Rights Act to the Supreme Court.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Jeffrey Toobin: 1965 Voting Rights Act secured voting rights for blacks in the South
  • Alabama county takes it to Supreme Court, saying act is unconstitutional
  • Toobin: Is it still necessary? Does discrimination still exist in the South?
  • Toobin: Ruling will be close, with Chief Justice Roberts likely to oppose U.S. argument

Editor's note: Jeffrey Toobin is a senior legal analyst for CNN and a staff writer at The New Yorker magazine, where he covers legal affairs. He is the author of "The Oath: The Obama White House and the Supreme Court."

(CNN) -- How much has the South changed?

That's the question at the heart of one of the most important cases the Supreme Court will take up this year.

The case weighs the fate of one of the most important laws in American history: the Voting Rights Act of 1965. A century after the Civil War, Congress created that law to give African Americans the right to vote, not just on paper, but in fact.

The key provision was Section 5, which decreed that jurisdictions with histories of discrimination, mostly in the South, had to get Justice Department approval before they changed any aspect of their voting rules, right down to the location of polling places. There is little doubt that, in the years immediately after 1965, the Voting Rights Act achieved a revolution in voting rights for African-Americans in the South. In subsequent years, Congress has reauthorized the law several times, most recently in 2006.

Jeffrey Toobin
Jeffrey Toobin

Increasingly, covered jurisdictions have found the process of submitting their changes to the Justice Department, which is known as "pre-clearance," as a demeaning anachronism, and Shelby County, Alabama, went to court to argue that the Voting Rights Act was unconstitutional. The court will hear the case, Shelby County v. Holder, early next year.

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



Civil rights trailblazer promotes voting
Should felons be allowed to vote?
State law sparks voting rights concerns

The Obama administration strongly supports the act, but the president's election -- and re-election -- may be among the best arguments against the law. There is little doubt that African-Americans suffered pervasive discrimination in the 1960s, especially at the polls. But now we have a black president. Doesn't that prove that African-Americans have reached at least rough equality in the electoral realm?

Not necessarily. When reauthorizing the law, Congress compiled a record of thousands of pages documenting the legacy of discrimination that lingers in the covered jurisdictions. The government asserts that the justices should defer to Congress in deciding whether the problem of voting rights is solved.

Still, the Obama administration has to deal with a very important likely adversary in this case: Chief Justice John Roberts. The court heard a similar challenge to the Voting Rights Act in 2009, and the court sidestepped the core issue, resolving the case on procedural grounds. But there was little doubt, in Roberts' questions at oral argument or in his opinion, that he believes, constitutionally speaking, times have changed. The chief is unlikely to look for a procedural way out of controversy for a second time.

The controversy over voter suppression in the 2012 elections might have a paradoxical effect on the future of the law. Democrats argued that the efforts to impose Voter ID requirements and the like amounted to discrimination against African-Americans and thus could be seen as justification for preserving the Voting Rights Act.

But several of the acts of alleged voter suppression took place in states -- like Pennsylvania and Ohio -- that are not covered by Section 5 of the act. That may help the plaintiff's core argument: Times have changed in the South.

In any event, it's likely to be a close vote. What happens if the law is overturned? The answer may be: not much. The South may not need the act anymore to protect the voting rights of minorities. If that's true, that would prove the plaintiffs' main argument in this case.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Jeffrey Toobin.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 6:03 PM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
updated 10:24 AM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
updated 5:52 PM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
Ruben Navarrette notes that this fall, minority students will outnumber white students at America's public schools.
updated 5:21 PM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
Humans have driven to extinction four marine mammal species in modern times. As you read this, we are on the brink of losing the fifth, write three experts.
updated 7:58 AM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
It's been ten days since Michael Brown was killed, and his family is still waiting for information from investigators about what happened to their young man, writes Mel Robbins
updated 7:58 AM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
Sally Kohn says the Ferguson protests reflect broader patterns of racial injustice across the country, from chronic police violence and abuse against black men to the persistent economic and social exclusion of communities of color.
updated 8:42 AM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
The former U.K. prime minister and current U.N. envoy says there are 500 days left to fulfill the Millennium Goals' promise to children.
updated 9:10 AM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
Julian Zelizer says the left mistrusts Clinton but there are ways she can win support from liberals in 2016
updated 8:37 AM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Peter Bergen says the terror group is a huge threat in Iraq but only a potential one in the U.S.
updated 1:34 PM EDT, Sat August 16, 2014
Mark O'Mara says the way cops, media, politicians and protesters have behaved since Michael Brown's shooting shows not all the right people have learned the right lessons
updated 11:23 AM EDT, Sun August 17, 2014
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says the American military advisers in Iraq are sizing up what needs to be done and recommending accordingly
updated 3:41 PM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
Marc Lamont Hill says the President's comments on the Michael Brown shooting ignored its racial implications
updated 5:46 PM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
Joe Stork says the catastrophe in northern Iraq continues, even though many religious minorities have fled to safety: ISIS forces -- intent on purging them -- still control the area where they lived
updated 6:26 PM EDT, Thu August 14, 2014
Tim Lynch says Pentagon's policy of doling out military weapons to police forces is misguided and dangerous.
updated 9:15 AM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
S.E. Cupp says millennials want big ideas and rapid change; she talks to one of their number who serves in Congress
updated 7:57 PM EDT, Thu August 14, 2014
Dorothy Brown says the power structure is dominated by whites in a town that is 68% black. Elected officials who sat by silently as chaos erupted after Michael Brown shooting should be voted out of office
updated 7:49 AM EDT, Thu August 14, 2014
Bill Schmitz says the media and other adults should never explain suicide as a means of escaping pain. Robin Williams' tragic death offers a chance to educate about prevention
updated 11:05 AM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
Nafees Syed says President Obama should renew the quest to eliminate bias in the criminal justice system
updated 4:24 PM EDT, Thu August 14, 2014
Eric Liu says what's unfolded in the Missouri town is a shocking violation of American constitutional rights and should be a wake-up call to all
updated 3:22 PM EDT, Wed August 13, 2014
Neal Gabler says Lauren Bacall, a talent in her own right, will be defined by her marriage with the great actor Humphrey Bogart
updated 6:56 AM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
Bob Butler says the arrest of two journalists covering the Ferguson story is alarming
updated 4:35 PM EDT, Wed August 13, 2014
Mark O'Mara says we all need to work together to make sure the tension between police and African-Americans doesn't result in more tragedies
updated 4:06 PM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
Pepper Schwartz asks why young women are so entranced with Kardashian, who's putting together a 352-page book of selfies
updated 7:08 PM EDT, Wed August 13, 2014
Michael Friedman says depression does not discriminate, cannot be bargained with and shows no mercy.
updated 11:25 AM EDT, Tue August 12, 2014
LZ Granderson says we must not surrender to apathy about the injustice faced by African Americans
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT