Notes on a Theory…

Thoughts on politics, law, & social science

Justice Scalia, Voting Rights, and Racial Entitlement

with 2 comments

Demonstrators walk down a street during the civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama in 1965. (Peter Pettus. 1965. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. Lot 13514, no. 25. More about the photograph)

Demonstrators walk down a street during the civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama in 1965. (Peter Pettus. 1965. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. Lot 13514, no. 25. More about the photograph)

[updated below]

The Supreme Court, according to many, seems poised to strike down Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, which would make it far easier for states and localities to engage in all manner of disenfranchisement knowing full well that it will take forever for a federal court to rule against them via the normal litigation process.  Creativity in such things is not a rare quality.

This should have been settled a long time ago.  As Justice Frankfurter said:

The reach of the Fifteenth Amendment against contrivances by a state to thwart equality in the enjoyment of the right to vote by citizens of the United States regardless of race or color, has been amply expounded by prior decisions. Guinn v. United States, 238 U.S. 347 , 35 S.Ct. 926, L.R.A.1916A, 1124; Myers v. Anderson, 238 U.S. 368 , 35 S.Ct. 932. The Amendment nullifies sophisticated as well as simple-minded modes of discrimination. It hits onerous procedural requirements which effectively handicap exercise of the franchise by the colored race although the abstract right to vote may remain unrestricted as to race.

Ironically, the Court (via Chief Justice Warren) used Selma, Alabama to illustrate the necessity of Section 5:

The previous legislation has proved ineffective for a number of reasons. Voting suits are unusually onerous to prepare, sometimes requiring as many as 6,000 man-hours spent combing through registration records in preparation for trial. Litigation has been exceedingly slow, in part because of the ample opportunities for delay afforded voting officials and others involved in the proceedings. Even when favorable decisions have finally been obtained, some of the States affected have merely switched to discriminatory devices not covered by the federal decrees or have enacted difficult new tests designed to prolong the existing disparity between white and Negro registration. Alternatively, certain local officials have defied and evaded court orders or have simply closed their registration offices to freeze the voting rolls. The provision of the 1960 law authorizing registration by federal officers has had little impact on local maladministration because of its procedural complexities.

During the hearings and debates on the Act, Selma, Alabama, was repeatedly referred to as the pre-eminent example of the ineffectiveness of existing legislation. In Dallas County, of which Selma is the seat, there were four years of litigation by the Justice Department and two findings by the federal courts of widespread voting discrimination. Yet in those four years, Negro registration.  rose only from 156 to 383, although there are approximately 15,000 Negroes of voting age in the county. Any possibility that these figures were attributable to political apathy was dispelled by the protest demonstrations in Selma in the early months of 1965. The House Committee on the Judiciary summed up the reaction of Congress to these developments in the following words:

      “The litigation in Dallas County took more than 4 years to open the door to the exercise of constitutional rights conferred almost a century ago. The problem on a national scale is that the difficulties experienced in suits in Dallas County have been encountered over and over again under existing voting laws. Four years is too long. The burden is too heavy – the wrong to our citizens is too serious – the damage to our national conscience is too great not to adopt more effective measures than exist today.

“Such is the essential justification for the pending bill.” House Report 11.

Reportedly, Justice Scalia compared continued congressional support for the Voting Rights Act to a “perpetuation of racial entitlement”. This despite the deluge of disenfranchising legislation that was passed around the country in the last few years, which generally had its greatest impact in racial minorities.  Apparently what Scalia is concerned about is people fighting back for their rights. But his comment made me think of this, written by Justice Bradley in 1883.

When a man has emerged from slavery, and, by the aid of beneficent legislation, has shaken off the inseparable concomitants of that state, there must be some stage in the progress of his elevation when he takes the rank of a mere citizen and ceases to be the special favorite of the laws, and when his rights as a citizen or a man are to be protected in the ordinary modes by which other men’s rights are protected. There were thousands of free colored people in this country before the abolition of slavery, enjoying all the essential rights of life, liberty and property the same as white citizens, yet no one at that time thought that it was any invasion of his personal status as a freeman because he was not admitted to all the privileges enjoyed by white citizens, or because he was subjected to discriminations in the enjoyment of accommodations in inns, public conveyances and places of amusement. Mere discriminations on account of race or color were not regarded as badges of slavery. If, since that time, the enjoyment of equal rights in all these respects has become established by constitutional enactment, it is not by force of the Thirteenth Amendment (which merely abolishes slavery), but by force of the Thirteenth and Fifteenth Amendments.

The “the special favorite of the laws” – in 1883.  Yes, friends, this is a story of racial entitlement, just not the one that Scalia and Bradley think.

Some things never change.


Charles Pierce cuts through the nonsense.

By what possible standard is Section V of the Voting Rights Act a “racial entitlement”? Who, precisely, is being entitled? And to what? The Voting Rights Act does not confer a government benefit to any one race or another. It merely makes sure that the rights guaranteed under the 15th Amendment are not finagled with out in certain parts of the country that have proven, through history, as being deft at said finagling. The reason that African Americans have been the primary beneficiaries of this law is the simple fact that they were its primary victims. [my emphasis]

2 Responses

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  1. […] about the Voting Rights Act being about ‘racial entitlement.’  [Update – including from me.] The full quote is even more bizarre.  Here’s a […]

  2. […] The Supreme Court has struck down Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act (pdf), rendering Section 5 inoperable until Congress changes Section 4 (assuming Congress can and there is anything Congress could pass that the Supreme Court would allow, which is unclear).  I addressed the most fundamental conservative objection to the Voting Rights Act after oral arguments – that it is a “racial entitlement”. […]

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