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The status of Section 3

Lyle Denniston looks at a key aspect of the voting rights-related lawsuits in Texas.

About four years after the Supreme Court took away the government’s strongest authority to protect minority voters’ rights, a backup power under the federal Voting Rights Act – weaker and harder to use – is now being threatened, just as federal courts have begun applying it.

At issue now, as it was when the Supreme Court decided the case of Shelby County v. Holder in June 2013, is a form of government supervision of voting rights that goes by the technical term, “pre-clearance.” When operating against a state or local government, that means that officials cannot put any new voting law or procedure – however minor – into effect without first getting approval in Washington, D.C.

Three cases now developing in federal courts based in Texas are testing whether the variation of “pre-clearance” will take the place of what the Supreme Court scuttled. And there are already serious challenges facing that prospect, in each of those cases.

[…]

District Judge Lee H. Rosenthal, became the first since the demise of Section 5 pre-clearance to impose Section 3 pre-clearance as a remedy for a discriminatory voting practice. That case involves a shift of the way voters in Pasadena, Texas, elect the members of the city council. Judge Rosenthal, after finding that the change discriminated intentionally against the city’s Hispanic voters, adopted a six-year period of pre-clearance for any future change in voting laws in that locality.

That case has now moved on up to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit. And that is where one major threat to Section 3 remedies has arisen. It came in a legal brief filed by the state of Texas last month, supporting an appeal by the city of Pasadena as far as the city is challenging the remedy of Section 3 pre-clearance. That remedy, the state brief asserted, “must be sparingly and cautiously applied.”

The state’s filing argued that “misuse” of that mode of pre-clearance “threatens to re-impose the same unwarranted federal intrusion that Shelby County found could not be justified under the Constitution.” The brief contended that Judge Rosenthal had engaged in such a “misuse” of this provision by imposing it for only a single incident of discrimination – the one-time change in the method of electing the Pasadena city council.

The only circumstance in which a Section 3 pre-clearance remedy is valid, under either the specific language of Section 3, the reasoning of the Supreme Court in 2013, or the Constitution, the Texas brief contended, is when a judge can conclude that the discrimination was “pervasive, flagrant, widespread, and rampant.”

The Fifth Circuit Court has been centrally involved for years in Voting Rights Act cases, because the state of Texas (located in that Circuit) has so often been sued for discrimination in voting. If that court were to read the Section 3 pre-clearance provision in the limited way that the state seeks, that would be a major setback in this legal field.

The Pasadena ruling was in January, and it put Pasadena under preclearance through the 2021 elections. The practical effect of that is likely to be minimal in that Pasadena is unlikely to want or need to engage in redistricting any time soon (other things like voting locations and hours for elections conducted by the city of Pasadena are also in scope), but the precedent as the first use of Section 3 in the post-Shelby world is big. As Denniston notes, the voter ID case, in which a finding of intentional discrimination has already been made, and the legislative redistricting case where the matter of intent has not yet been resolved, could impose similar requirements on the state as well. If the intent finding in the voter ID case is upheld, that would affect redistricting even if no such ruling is made in that suit.

So, it’s not surprising that the state is arguing for a limited application of Section 3. There’s an awful lot at stake, and it all begins in Pasadena. I’ll be keeping an eye on this. Link via Rick Hasen.

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