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Public Statements

Voting Rights Act

Floor Speech

By:
Date:
Location: Washington, DC

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Mr. CONYERS. Mr. Speaker, I'm pleased to join in this Special Order, a bipartisan one, in which I thank my judiciary colleague and former chairman of the Judiciary Committee, Jim Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin, for joining me in this discussion, as well as Congressman Bobby Scott of Virginia, also a distinguished member of the Judiciary Committee and former chairman of the Subcommittee on Crime.

Members of the House, just days before the anniversary of the Edmund Pettus Bridge march from Montgomery to Selma--and by the way, our colleague, Congressman John Lewis, was the only Member of Congress who was in that march--the Supreme Court will review Congress' authority under the Constitution to reauthorize the Voting Rights Act, specifically section 5 of that act. I believe and I am confident the Supreme Court will and should uphold the constitutionality of Congress' authorization of section 5 for three reasons. The first: Protecting minority voting rights is a constitutional imperative that Congress is required to enforce.

When Congress acts under the 15th Amendment to the Constitution, it acts at the zenith of its constitutional authority. The Supreme Court has consistently upheld Congress' authority under the 15th Amendment. The 15th Amendment gives Congress a mandate to eliminate racial discrimination in voting by appropriate legislation. After almost a century of ineffective protection for minorities, and in the long wake of the Civil War, Congress took action to pass the 15th Amendment, and almost a hundred years later passed the Voting Rights Act, which included section 5. Protecting minority voting rights is something Congress can do, and this authority has been repeatedly affirmed by the United States Supreme Court.

For almost 50 years, the Supreme Court consistently affirmed Congress' authority to protect minority voting rights under section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. Legal challenges to section 5 are nothing new to Congress, and are nothing new to the Court. Legal challenges to section 5 of the Voting Rights Act have routinely been made after Congress has reauthorized temporary provisions.

The Supreme Court first affirmed the constitutionality of section 5 in 1966. In the case of South Carolina v. Katzenbach, the Supreme Court upheld the Voting Rights Act, including section 5. The Court in that decision cited Congress' careful study and the voluminous legislative history underlying the Voting Rights Act as the basis for upholding it. During Congress' most recent authorization of section 5 in 2006, both the Senate and the House studied the continued need for section 5 by amassing an extensive record that totaled over 15,000 pages, spanned 20 hearings, and included testimony from a total of 96 witnesses representing interests ranging from Federal and State executive officials to civil rights leaders and others. Those 15,000 pages were amassed by the House Judiciary Committee and the Senate Judiciary Committee as well.

Congress paid careful attention to the Court's decisions throughout the reauthorization process and acted consistent with them to the extent of the law, and only after commencing the evidence, strongly suggested widespread violations of the 15th Amendment, which led to ample justification for congressional action.

The result, on July 13, 2006, was the largest bipartisan vote in Voting Rights Act history, with a vote of 390-33 in the House and unanimous passage in the Senate, 98-0.

Although dicta from the Court's Namundo decision in 2009 suggested that the burdens of section 5 may be unnecessary because times have changed, Congress found that the evidence strongly suggests otherwise.

While we have made progress, Congress continues to find that racial discrimination in voting is still present and remains concentrated in those places covered by section 5. Unfortunately, the methods of discrimination have also become more sophisticated. I believe that the Court will recognize what Congress found in 2006--that the work of section 5 is not yet complete.

The protections in section 5 don't solely impact our Federal voting processes, but rather the breadth of section 5 extends to the smallest cities and most centralized local governments. When a voting change discriminates against local citizens even at the local level, section 5 has the ability to halt the impact of discrimination. Without section 5's strength to arrest the discrimination at the outset, the burden of remedying the discrimination would be on these local citizens.

The facts in Shelby County v. Holder further magnify the importance of section 5 to protect the voting rights of minorities. In the Shelby case, the Justice Department rejected an electoral map drawn by a city in Shelby County which would have decreased the number of black voters from 70.9 percent to 29.5 percent. In this instance, section 5 preserved the ability of the African American community in the city to elect their candidate of choice to the city council. Shelby County, along with many examples examined by Congress in 2006, highlights the importance of reauthorization of section 5 of the Voting Rights Act.

The constitutionality of the Voting Rights Act is an important matter for the Court to consider and continue to review, and is important to the democratic ideals of this country.

We believe the Supreme Court owes much deference to the considered judgment of the people's elected representatives since Congress continues to find that racial discrimination in voting is present and remains concentrated in many of the places covered by section 5. We expect the United States Supreme Court to continue to declare that section 5 of the Voting Rights Act is critical to protecting minority voting rights--all voting rights--well into the 21st century.

Mr. Speaker, I yield to the gentleman from Wisconsin (Mr. Sensenbrenner).

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