Today the Supreme Court hears oral arguments in the much-publicized case of Shelby County, Alabama v. Holder. Some have described the case as having the kind of ramifications for the Voting Rights Act that Citizens United had for campaign finance laws: law that was once settled and based on sound reasoning has now come under imminent threat of upheaval.
On Monday, Justice Sotomayor issued a “statement” in a case, Bongani Calhoun v. United States, No. 12-6142, involving the racist remarks of a federal prosecutor in Texas. The statement came as the Court declined to hear the case for mostly procedural considerations, but Justice Sotomayor felt it necessary to write separately so she could “dispel any doubt” that the Court’s decision “be understood to signal [the Court’s] tolerance of” the “racially charged remark.” “It should not,” Sotomayor bluntly stated. After taking the Government to task for its conduct, both with respect to the remarks and to the way it approached the case as it wound its way to the Court, Sotomayor ended her statement by warning or perhaps lamenting that she “hope[s] never to see a case like this again.” Only Justice Breyer joined Sotomayor in her statement.
That Sotomayor decided to issue such a statement at this particular time in the Court’s sitting is not, I submit, a coincidence. Instead, Sotomayor’s brief yet emphatic statement may have been her way of alerting her colleagues on the bench that now is not the time to be tinkering with or, worse yet, altogether scrapping the prophylactic measures that have been enacted to protect minorities from the kind of racism that, to Sotomayor, is as much a part of America as baseball, apple pie and barbecued ribs. And she did so in vivid almost picturesque fashion, none of which can really be captured in the raw data and statistics that will be thrust at the Court as it considers whether to overturn the Voting Rights Act, or at least a key part of it.
True, Sotomayor’s colleagues may decline to heed her warning or disagree with her view that things are still as they were back when Congress first passed, and then continued to renew, the Voting Rights Act. But even in pure temporal terms, we are only a mere 50 years removed from a time (1963; the Voting Rights Act was passed in 1965) when many thought that the country could not survive as a democracy without measures like the Voting Rights Act — a time when George Wallace, Alabama’s then Governor refused to de-segregate the University of Alabama, in direct defiance of President Kennedy and and a time when an owner of a segregated restaurant in Maryland felt fit to physically humiliate individuals who knelt in front of his restaurant to call attention to their message of integration. (These pictures are from a series of 50 photos taken in 1963 that was recently posted on the website for The Atlantic.) To argue that such racism, or more appropriately, its remnants has been purged from the fabric of this country is at best inaccurate and at worst irresponsible. Knowing that this view will probably not hold sway with the majority of the Court, however, my thoughts turn to those, like the Maryland protestors, who through their dedication and sacrifice helped put on the books laws like the Voting Rights Act, and without whom our country would be even more segregated than it was in 1963.