Statement of the Honorable John Conyers, Jr. for the Hearing on
the Voting Rights Act After the Supreme Court's Decision in Shelby County
Before the Subcommittee on the Constitution and Civil Justice
Thursday, July 18, 2013, at 11:00 a.m.
The Voting Rights Act is the crown jewel of our nation's civil rights laws.
Many members past and present hold the act in an almost sacred place. Some, like our colleague John Lewis, shed his blood in support of its passage. Others owe their careers as legislators to its vigorous enforcement.
Without question, the act has been an unqualified success, helping to rid our nation of legal barriers to voting discrimination and paving the way for the election of the first African-American to the White House.
These successes, however, did not mean that the work of the Voting Rights Act was complete.
For that reason, then Chairman Sensenbrenner, and I on a bipartisan basis compiled a voluminous record in support of reauthorization of the act in 2006.
This record, in many respects, greatly exceeded that compiled for previous reauthorization efforts.
Most importantly, we carefully followed the parameters set out in City of Boerne v. Flores in updating the Act so that it would pass legal scrutiny and protect voters from well-documented, continuing discrimination.
In response to legal challenges to the act following 2006, we asserted congressional authority to enact voting rights legislation under the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments of the Constitution in two separate amicus briefs.
We were confident that the United States Supreme Court, following the precedents set in South Carolina v. Katzenbach and in City of Rome vs. United States, would uphold the constitutionality of the act.
This explains why I, along with many of my colleagues in Congress and legal commentators, were so deeply disappointed by the Court's 5 to 4 decision in Shelby County v. Holder, which invalidated the coverage formula or "trigger" in Section 4(b) of the Act as being outdated.
As a result of Shelby, Section 5 of the Act – which requires preclearance for jurisdictions covered by Section 4(b) – is effectively suspended.
Section 5 is the Act's key provision. It requires covered jurisdictions to obtain advance approval from the Justice Department or a three-judge panel before they can implement voting changes.
The suspension of Section 5 preclearance deprives the Justice Department of a critical tool that has been used to protect the voting rights of minority citizens in jurisdictions with a history of discrimination.
Although the Supreme Court has invited Congress to pass an updated coverage formula, the opinion left unresolved several important questions.
The most immediate of these issues pertains to the current state of existing voting rights enforcement law during the interim between this ruling and enactment of any new coverage formula.
Fortunately, today's hearing provides an important opportunity for us to address this issue and others presented by Shelby. And I thank Committee Chairmen Goodlatte and Subcommittee Chairman Franks for promptly scheduling this hearing.
I have been a member of this committee for my entire career in Congress. I joined the committee in 1965 so I could work on bills like the Voting Rights Act because I had seen firsthand the stain that discrimination in general and discrimination in voting in particular placed on our democracy.
I know every member of this committee to be an individual of fairness and good faith, and I pledge to work with each and every one of you to respond to the Supreme Court's decision on a bipartisan basis.
It is therefore my hope that immediately after this hearing and over the recess we can begin the process of discussion with each other in order to protect our citizen's voting rights to the fullest extent possible consistent with our Constitution. 2141 Rayburn House Office Building
Mr. J. Christian Adams, Election Law Center
Mr. Robert Kengle, Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law
Mr. Hans A. von Spakovsky, The Heritage Foundation
Mr. Spencer Overton, The George Washington University Law School