U. S. Senate Could Craft New Protection if High Court Kills Section 5 by Hazel Trice Edney

Filed under LEAD STORIES

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In a “meet the press” type setting, U. S. senators – between votes – fielded questions from reporters
during a Black media roundtable.

If the U. S. Supreme Court strikes down or alters the Section 5 Preclearance Clause of the Voting Rights Act, Congress should be prepared with a remedy to protect against discrimination, according to members of the U. S. Senate in a roundtable with Black media last week.

“This supreme court is more and more skeptical of the root causes of, the evidence of and the consequences of discrimination,” said Sen. Christopher A. Coons (D-Del.), And I think We need to be prepared to act legislatively to deal with the likely consequences of a federal government that may be more reigned in in terms of its ability to proactively reach out.”

Coons, a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, was speaking during a June 13 roundtable during which 12 Senators met with 19 Black reporters to discuss issues of importance to their readers.

Issues of race and public policy dominated the 80-minute discussion held in the Mansfield Room of the U. S. Capitol. Anticipating a ruling this month, reporters, policy makers and civil rights leaders alike are bracing themselves, already contemplating the next move in the case of an adverse ruling given racial discrimination that still exists.

Coons continued, “Discrimination absolutely is still a problem in housing, in employment and in voting. And in my view, we’ve got to be vigilant and attentive” of the opinions handed down by the Supreme Court “because I think we may see restrictions in the ability of government to act…And to deal directly and proactively with discrimination.”

Among key items on which the court is set to rule is Shelby v. Holder, which challenges Section 5, which requires states and territories with a history of discrimination to clear any changes in voting laws with the U. S. Department of Justice. Striking down this provision – which was just reauthorized by an overwhelming, bi-partisan majority of the Senate seven years ago – would effectively gut the Act, opening the door for gerrymandering of congressional districts and other political lines as well as the creation of voter ID laws that discriminate against African-Americans and other people of color.

Two other race equality cases before the court are also viewed as endangering racial justice. They are Fisher v. University of Texas and a Michigan law which has banned affirmative action in public college admissions. An adverse ruling in either of these cases could either end the consideration of race in college admission policies or cause what lawyers call a “chilling effect”. The “chilling effect” is when a ruling is so damaging that it causes universities to end or severely alter policies on their own in order to avoide future law suits.

The roundtable was organized by the Senate Democratic Steering and Outreach Committee, chaired by Senator Mark Begich (D-Alaska). Senator Harry Reid, Majority Leader, did not attend, apparently due to votes. The meeting was moderated by Sen. William “Mo” Cowan (D-Mass.), currently the only Black member of the U. S. Senate.

Responding to a question about the historic void of Blacks in the Senate, Cowan acknowledged, “We have a long way to go” and said Americans have an obligation to “encourage people of all races to get involved in this political process.”

He said when the Senate is not representative of its constituents, it does a “great disservice”. But he added for clarity, “You don’t have to look like your constituents in order to represent the interests of your constituents.”

He agreed, “If Section 5 Pre-clearance is reversed by the Supreme court,” Congress would have to take “prompt and vigorous action” to preserve it.

Despite partisan bickering between Republicans and Democrats over the budget and other issues, Sen. Robert P. Casey, Jr. (D-Pa.) expressed optimism that if the court strikes down the Pre-clearance Clause of Section 5, it could be either rebuilt in a bi-partisan spirit “or a comparable preventive measure could be crafted swiftly” in consultation with legal organizations that regularly litigate such issues. “I think it affects all of us.”

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