CALERA, Ala. — Alabama’s governor and other state leaders praised a Supreme Court ruling on Tuesday that halts the use of a key provision in the Voting Rights Act.
The high court’s ruling on a legal challenge by Shelby County was hailed that county’s lawyer, Gov. Robert Bentley, the state’s attorney general and the speaker of the House. They say that the ruling means Alabama can make its own decisions, and they pointed out that much has changed in the decades since the law was enacted.
Others, including the leader of the Alabama Legislature’s black caucus decried the ruling
In a 5-4 ruling, the court declared unconstitutional the provision of the landmark Voting Rights Act that determines which states and localities must get Washington’s approval for proposed election changes.
The decision effectively puts an end to the advance approval requirement that has been used, mainly in the South, to open up polling places to minority voters in the nearly half century since it was first enacted in 1965, unless Congress can come up with a new formula that Chief Justice John Roberts said meets “current conditions” in the United States.
The chairman of the black caucus in the Alabama Legislature, Democratic Rep. Napoleon Bracy of Mobile, said he thought the ruling was “unfair and an injustice to African-Americans who have been through civil rights struggles.”
“I think states that have a history of racial discrimination need to have federal oversight through the Department of Justice,” Bracy said.
Ernest Montgomery, who is black and a lifelong resident of Shelby County, said he wouldn’t have ever been elected to his seat on the Calera City Council without the voting rights act. He was disheartened by the court’s decision.
“I’m very disappointed with it,” Montgomery said in an interview at City Hall. “Disappointed isn’t even the word for it.”
Bentley said that the provision was necessary in the 1960s, but that there was no longer need for Alabama to get clearance from the federal government to change its voting procedures and rules.
“We have long lived up to what happened then, and we have made sure it’s not going to happen again,” he said.
He pointed out that the Alabama Legislature is 27 percent black — a similar proportion to the state’s overall population — as a sign of the state’s progress.
“I assure you that as long as I am governor we are not going to discriminate against anyone,” Bentley said.
Shelby County attorney Butch Ellis said the high court’s ruling will save local and state governments time and money without hurting the cause of voting equality. Ellis says local governments have spent more than $1 billion seeking Justice Department approval of voting changes. He says money spent on lawyers in the past can now go to schools, police and fire protections.
“I’m elated. It means that 12,000 cities, counties and states across the country that have been retained by this section under an outdated formula … will no longer have to seek preclearance,” said Ellis.
Attorney General Luther Strange said he was happy that the court recognized changes made in the South in the decades since the law was enacted.
“The Supreme Court today rightly recognized that Alabama and other covered jurisdictions could not be treated unequally based on things that happened decades ago,” he said.
Strange was asked what effect the ruling might have on the right to vote for minorities.
“This ruling is very beneficial and will not have any impact on a minority’s right to vote,” Strange said at a meeting Tuesday with reporters.
Strange said the state has still not submitted to the Justice Department a request for pre-clearance of a bill passed by the Legislature requiring voters to show photo identification at the polls.
House Speaker Mike Hubbard, R-Auburn, said the ruling will allow Alabama more autonomy.
“The Alabama of today is vastly different than the one of a half century ago, and the time for us to be freed from the burden of federal oversight is long overdue. Today’s ruling clearly states that our constitutional rights as Alabamians take precedence over the wants and whims of liberal Justice Department bureaucrats in Washington, D.C.,” he said.
The chief executive officer of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and a former Alabama state senator, Charles Steele, said he was “very disappointed in the court’s decision. It’s 50 years later and we are trying to turn back freedom for African-Americans.”
Steele said the Voting Rights Act was the catalyst for many freedoms won by blacks over the past 50 years.
Steele predicted the ruling will lead to a new round of civil rights demonstrations to encourage Congress to restore language concerning preclearance in the act.
State Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, who represents parts of Shelby County, said the ruling shows how far Alabama had come.
“The Alabama of today is not the Alabama of 1966,” Ward said.
Alabama Secretary of State Beth Chapman said even with the ruing the Voting Rights Act still prohibits any discrimination regarding the elections process.”