Jewish Groups Blast Top Court Over Decision on Voting Rights Act

Say Supremes Gut Commitment to Civil Rights

Rock the Vote: Demonstrators protest outside the Supreme Court after the justices struck down parts of the Voting Rights Act.
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Rock the Vote: Demonstrators protest outside the Supreme Court after the justices struck down parts of the Voting Rights Act.

By Nathan Guttman

Published June 25, 2013.
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Congress passed its most recent renewal of the Voting Rights Act in 2006, for a period of 25 years, by a vote of 99-0 in the Senate and 390-33 in the House of Representatives. Its constitutionality was previously upheld by the Supreme Court four times, most recently in 1999.

Nevertheless, Roberts was joined by all conservative-leaning justices of the Supreme Court in his majority decision.

The minority opinion was signed by all three Jewish justices on the bench: Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Elena Kagan and Stephen Breyer. Writing for her fellow liberals on the bench, Bader Ginsburg argued that Congress’ renewal of the Voting Rights Act was an “altogether rational means” for achieving “the equal citizenship stature of all in our polity, a voice to every voter in our democracy undiluted by race.”

The court left the door open for Congress to legislate new rules that would determine how to decide which states and districts should be covered by the VRA. But political analysts were unanimous in deeming such a move as highly unlikely in the current political climate. The nine states covered by the law: Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas, Virginia, Alaska and Arizona, are largely Republican, and the removal of the VRA pre-clearance requirement will make re-districting easier for those ruling their state capitals to draw maps favorable to their party.

The Voting Rights Act was aimed primarily at deep-South states in order to uproot widespread practices of voter discrimination that robbed many African-Americans of their right to participate in the elections. Its impact on Jewish voters has been marginal. In New York, where Brooklyn, Bronx and Queens are covered by the VRA, the need to redistrict in favor of minority communities has, in the past, touched on areas heavily populated with Jewish residents who, for the purpose of this law, were viewed as white. Jewish areas in Florida, California and in Texas also came under the law’s jurisdiction.

But for most in the community, the fight to preserve the Voting Rights Act was related directly to the history of Jewish activism in the civil rights struggle and the community’s liberal values.

“For almost 50 years, the Voting Rights Act has protected minority voters, helping to ensure that everyone, no matter their race, ethnicity, or national origin, can exercise their constitutional right to vote,” said the Anti Defamation League in a statement. The National Council of Jewish Women also expressed its dismay. Nancy Kaufman the group’s CEO, termed the right to vote “a bedrock of our democracy – a right for which men and women sacrificed their lives.”

The Jewish Council for Public Affairs, a policy umbrella organization of Jewish federations, which advocated for the passage of the VRA in the 1960’s, made clear that it still viewed the law as essential.

“Today we recommit ourselves to the principles of the VRA we first advocated for decades ago,” said JCPA chair Larry Gold in a statement. Gold said that JCPA would push Congress to make the needed changes in order to implement the law.

Saperstein suggested that Jewish activists, alongside others in the civil rights community, would now also vigorously scrutinize states known for voter discrimination in the past and take legal action against any new attempts that have a racially discriminatory impact.


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