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Context of 'December 12, 2003: Justice Department Lawyers Find Texas Redistricting Plan Unconstitutional, Senior Officials Overrule Judgment'

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President Lyndon Johnson signs the Voting Rights Act (VRA) into law. Based on the Fifteenth Amendment (see February 26, 1869), the VRA is a potent set of statutes that permanently bars direct barriers to political participation by racial and ethnic minorities. It bans any election practice that denies the right to vote due to race, and requires areas with a history of racial discrimination to get federal approval of changes in their election laws before they can take effect. The VRA forbids literacy tests (see 1896, April 25, 1898, and June 8, 1959) and other barriers to registration that have worked to stop minority voters from exercising their rights (see 1888, June 21, 1915, and February 4, 1964). Sections 2 and 5 of the VRA work together to prohibit states from establishing voting qualifications or standards that interfere with a citizen’s right to vote on a racial basis. Section 5 requires states with a history of racial discrimination to obtain “preclearance” from the Justice Department before altering any laws pertaining to voting—this includes changing electoral districts, voter qualification rules, and even changes in government structure such as making a formerly elective office appointive. If the changes can be seen as possibly “diluting” minority voting strength, they can be disallowed. States wishing to challenge the VRA restrictions have the opportunity to have their cases heard in federal court. Section 2 has similar, if less restrictive, provisions that apply nationally. Section 10 of the VRA takes direct aim at the Breedlove ruling from the Supreme Court (see December 6, 1937), which had legitimized poll taxes used to disenfranchise minority voters. That portion of the VRA finds that poll taxes “impose… unreasonable financial hardship” and “precludes persons of limited means from voting.” The VRA also forbids the use of literacy tests, good character tests, and other such tests used in the past to suppress minority voting. The law urges the attorney general to urge the Court to overrule Breedlove; minutes after Johnson signs the bill into law, he directs the attorney general “to file a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the poll tax.” The Court will find poll taxes unconstitutional in its Harper v. Virginia Board of Elections ruling (see March 24, 1966). The US Department of Justice and the federal courts now have the power to monitor problem jurisdictions and assist private citizens in seeking redress through the courts if their voting rights are infringed. Months later, the Supreme Court will uphold the constitutionality of the VRA. [eNotes, 2004; American Civil Liberties Union, 2012; Yale Law School, 2/8/2012]

Entity Tags: US Supreme Court, Voting Rights Act of 1965, Lyndon B. Johnson

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

1970: Congress Renews Voting Rights Act

Congress renews the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (VRA—see August 6, 1965) for five more years. Unfortunately, the law’s provisions are temporary. Congress also finds that many states are purposefully ignoring some provisions of the law. In the hearings about the law’s extension, Congress heard about the many ways voting electorates were manipulated through gerrymandering, annexations, at-large elections (see April 22, 1980), and other methods to disenfranchise minority voters. [African American Voices in Congress, 2012; American Civil Liberties Union, 2012]

Entity Tags: Voting Rights Act of 1965, US Congress

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

1975: Voting Rights Act Extended

President Gerald Ford reauthorizes the Voting Rights Act (VRA—see August 6, 1965 and 1970). The reauthorization contains new provisions to permanently bar literacy tests nationwide and provide language assistance for minority voters. The law also extends the “preclearance” provisions that require courts to monitor states with a history of discrimination. During hearings about the bill, Congress heard testimony about voting discrimination being carried out against Hispanic, Asian, and Native American citizens. [American Civil Liberties Union, 2012; African American Voices in Congress, 2012]

Entity Tags: Voting Rights Act of 1965, US Congress, Gerald Rudolph Ford, Jr

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

The US Supreme Court guts a significant portion of the Voting Rights Act (VRA—see August 6, 1965, 1970, and 1975) by ruling that voters must prove racially discriminatory intent in order to prevail in litigation under the VRA. In the case of City of Mobile v. Bolden, the Court rules 6-3 that the previous standard of proving discriminatory results is no longer adequate. Disenfranchised voters must now prove intent, a far higher standard, before receiving redress. The case originates in Mobile, Alabama’s practice of electing city commissioners under an at-large voting scheme. No African-American had ever been elected to the commission, and a number of Mobile citizens challenged the constitutionality of the at-large scheme. The Court found that at-large schemes such as that employed by the city of Mobile only violate the Constitution if they deliberately serve to minimize or cancel out the voting potential of minorities. Justice Potter Stewart, writing for the plurality, finds that the right to equal participation in the electoral process is aimed not for the protection of any political group. Moreover, he writes that the evidence fails to show that Mobile operates a voting system with the intent to discriminate. The conservative justices largely side with Stewart. The liberals are split. Justices Harry Blackmun and John Paul Stevens concur with Stewart’s ruling for different reasons than those expressed by Stewart. Justices William Brennan, Thurgood Marshall, and Byron White dissent, with Brennan and White arguing that the burden of proof had been met, and Marshall arguing that the burden of proof should be on Mobile to show that it refused to modify its voting scheme despite the evidence of discrimination. [MOBILE v. BOLDEN, 446 US 55 (1980), 4/22/1980 pdf file; Casebriefs, 2012; American Civil Liberties Union, 2012]

Entity Tags: John Paul Stevens, Byron White, Harry Blackmun, William Brennan, Potter Stewart, Voting Rights Act of 1965, US Supreme Court, Thurgood Marshall

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

Congress reauthorizes the 1965 Voting Rights Act (VRA—see August 6, 1965, 1970, and 1975) for 25 years, until 2014. It also overturns via legislation the Supreme Court’s decision to force voters to prove discriminatory intent before receiving redress (see April 22, 1980). President Reagan signs the bill into law. The reauthorization also adds protections for blind, disabled, and illiterate voters. Reagan calls the right to vote a “crown jewel” of American liberties. [American Civil Liberties Union, 2012]

Entity Tags: Voting Rights Act of 1965, US Congress, Ronald Reagan, US Supreme Court

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

For 13 years, Texas Republicans have complained that Texas Democrats have “gerrymandered” the state’s electoral district to give Democrats an undue representation in the state’s US House delegation (see 1990 - 1991 and 2000-2002). Now, with Republicans in control of both houses of the state legislature, they decide to redistrict the state to favor Republican representation in Congress. In 2002, Democrats hold a 17-15 edge in US Representatives. The decision is unusual inasmuch as states usually only redraw their district boundaries once a decade, in concurrence with the federal census. Democrats wage a bitter battle against the Republican redistricting efforts, even fleeing the state for a time to prevent the legislature from reaching a quorum (see May 12-15, 2003), but Republicans, led by House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-TX), eventually win out, and the Texas legislature enacts a new redistricting plan, Plan 1347C, that concentrates large numbers of Democrats, including minority voters, in a relatively small number of districts and gives Republicans a majority of prospective voters in a much larger number of more sparsely populated districts. In the November 2004 elections, the plan works as envisioned: Republicans have a 21-11 majority in the US Congressional delegation, and obtain a 58 percent to 41 percent edge in statewide voting results. Even before the elections, a number of organizations and individuals file a lawsuit challenging the legality of the redistricting map under the Voting Rights Act (VRA—see August 6, 1965, 1970, 1975, April 22, 1980, and June 29, 1989), charging that the plan unlawfully dilutes racial minority voting strength and is designed to maximize partisan advantage at the voting booths, in essence gerrymandering the state’s electoral districts. A district court finds the redistricting plan is essentially legal, but the Supreme Court vacates that decision and remands the case for reconsideration; the court again finds in favor of the plaintiffs, affirming the map as lawful. [Austin American-Statesman, 5/14/2003; Washington Post, 12/2/2005; FindLaw, 6/28/2006; Oyez (.org), 2012] That decision will be substantially affirmed by the Supreme Court (see June 28, 2006). DeLay says that President Bush, the former governor of Texas, is squarely behind the redistricting efforts. After a Congressional leadership breakfast in May 2003, DeLay says he spoke briefly with Bush: “As I was walking out, I said, you know, that redistricting is ongoing. And he said, ‘Well, good, I’d like to see that happen.’” [Dallas Morning News, 5/14/2003] During the battle over the redistricting, Texas Democrats insist that the new districts will not only illegally protect Republican majorities, but will dilute the impact of votes from outside cities and suburban areas. US Representative Max Sandlin (D-TX) tells a reporter: “This plan doesn’t just destroy Democratic representation… it destroys rural representation. East Texas has had tremendous battles with Dallas over water rights. It is absolutely ridiculous to have a Dallas Congress member represent East Texans concerning water rights. And you can go issue by issue.” Republicans from rural districts say they have no such worries. [Austin American-Statesman, 5/14/2003]

Entity Tags: Tom DeLay, Texas Republican Party, George W. Bush, Max Sandlin, Voting Rights Act of 1965, Texas Democratic Party

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

Six lawyers and two analysts at the US Department of Justice (DOJ) conclude, in a classified memo, that the controversial Texas Congressional redistricting plan headed by Representative Tom DeLay (R-TX—see 2002-2004) is illegal. The memo states that the plan violates the Voting Rights Act (VRA—see August 6, 1965, 1970, 1975, April 22, 1980, and June 29, 1989) by illegally diluting African-American and Hispanic voting power in two Congressional districts. The plan also eliminated several other districts that contained substantial minority voting blocs. Texas Republicans knew the plan would likely be found to be discriminatory, the lawyers write in the memo. The memo says that the Texas legislature went ahead with the plan anyway because it would maximize the number of Republicans the state would send to Congress. The memo concludes, “The State of Texas has not met its burden in showing that the proposed Congressional redistricting plan does not have a discriminatory effect.” A concurring opinion written by one of the DOJ lawyers finds: “This result quite plainly indicates a reduction in minority voting strength. The state’s argument that it has increased minority voting strength… simply does not stand up under careful analysis.”
DeLay, Aide Ignored Concerns about Voting Rights Discrimination - One of the senior aides to DeLay, James W. Ellis, is cited in the memo as pushing for the plan despite fears that the DOJ would reject it. According to the memo, Ellis and other DeLay aides forced the adoption of the plan over two other versions adopted by the Texas Legislature that would not have raised as many concerns about voting rights discrimination. The memo quotes Ellis in an October 2003 memo writing: “We need our map, which has been researched and vetted for months. The pre-clearance and political risks are the delegation’s and we are willing to assume those risks, but only with our map.” Later testimony will show that DeLay and Ellis forced last-minute changes in the map; DeLay attended many of the meetings that produced the map, and Ellis worked through the state’s lieutenant governor and a state senator to shepherd the changes that he and DeLay desired. The final changes were not necessary, the memo finds, except to advance partisan political goals.
Findings Overruled - Regardless of the findings, the lawyers and analysts’ judgment is overruled by senior officials at the DOJ, all appointed by the Bush administration. The DOJ’s civil rights division will affirm the plan as legal and valid. The memo is kept secret for almost two years, and the lawyers and analysts involved in the case, including the authors of the memo, are bound to silence under an unusual gag rule. The DOJ is under no legal burden to accept the findings of the memo, but historically, such findings are given great weight in DOJ rulings. Former Justice Department lawyer Mark Posner later says that it is “highly unusual” for the DOJ to overrule a unanimous finding such as this one: “In this kind of situation, where everybody agrees at least on the staff level… that is a very, very strong case. The fact that everybody agreed that there were reductions in minority voting strength, and that they were significant, raises a lot of questions as to why it was” approved. [US Department of Justice, 12/12/2003 pdf file; Washington Post, 12/2/2005] In December 2005, the Washington Post will reveal the existence of the memo (see December 2, 2005). Days after the Post article, Posner will write an article for the prestigious legal Web site FindLaw that will opine that the DOJ memo was ignored for partisan political reasons, and not because of honest differences of opinion between legal experts (see December 5, 2005).

Entity Tags: Texas State Legislature, Civil Rights Division (DOJ), Mark Posner, Voting Rights Act of 1965, James W. Ellis, US Department of Justice, Washington Post, Tom DeLay

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

The Washington Post reports that the controversial Texas congressional redistricting plan headed by Representative Tom DeLay (R-TX—see 2002-2004) was found to be illegal by Justice Department lawyers, but their judgment was overruled by senior political appointees at the Department of Justice (DOJ) who approved the plan. The information comes from a previously undisclosed memo written in December 2003 (see December 12, 2003) and provided to the Post by, the Post writes, “a person connected to the case who is critical of the adopted redistricting map.” Six lawyers and two analysts at the DOJ found that the DeLay plan violated the Voting Rights Act (VRA—see August 6, 1965, 1970, 1975, April 22, 1980, and June 29, 1989) by illegally diluting African-American and Hispanic voting power in two Congressional districts. Texas Republicans knew the plan would likely be found to be discriminatory, the lawyers wrote in the memo, but went ahead with the plan anyway because it would maximize the number of Republicans the state would send to Congress. In the 2004 federal elections, Texas sent five additional Republicans to the US House, helping to solidify GOP control of that body. A lawyer for the Texas Democrats and minority groups who are challenging the redistricting in court, J. Gerald Hebert, says of the DOJ memo: “We always felt that the process… wouldn’t be corrupt, but it was.… The staff didn’t see this as a close call or a mixed bag or anything like that. This should have been a very clear-cut case.” DOJ spokesman Eric W. Holland, defending the decision by senior DOJ officials to approve the plan, points to a lower-court decision in the case that affirmed the plan’s legality. “The court ruled that, in fact, the new congressional plan created a sufficient number of safe minority districts given the demographics of the state and the requirements of the law,” he says, and notes that Texas now has three African-Americans in Congress whereas in the years before redistricting, it had only two. Hebert says the DOJ’s approval of the redistricting plan was a critical factor in the court’s decision to affirm the plan. DeLay spokesman Kevin Madden accuses Hebert of engaging in what he calls “nonsensical political babble,” and says the DOJ is correct to have found that the plan has no discriminatory effects. Under both the older plan (see 2000-2002) and the DeLay plan, minority-led districts number 11, but under the DeLay plan, Texas gained two more Congressional districts, both represented by Republicans. Recently, a similar case was reported in which DOJ lawyers found a Georgia redistricting plan to be illegal, but senior political appointees overruled the legal judgment and approved the plan. A court later found the plan to be illegal. [Washington Post, 12/2/2005]

Entity Tags: Kevin Madden, Eric W. Holland, J. Gerald Hebert, US Department of Justice, Voting Rights Act of 1965, Washington Post, Tom DeLay

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

Mark Posner, a law professor at American University who served in the civil rights division of the US Department of Justice (DOJ) for 23 years and supervised the DOJ’s “Section 5” reviews under the Voting Rights Act (VRA—see August 6, 1965, 1970, 1975, April 22, 1980, and June 29, 1989) for 10 years, writes an article for the prestigious legal information Web site FindLaw that says the DOJ found the controversial Texas redistricting plan (see 2002-2004) legal for purely partisan political reasons. Posner’s article is spurred by the recent revelation of a 2003 DOJ memo (see December 12, 2003 and December 2, 2005) that found the redistricting plan to be illegal, and the Washington Post’s finding that the memo was rejected by political appointees at the DOJ, who saw to it that the plan was approved by the civil rights division. Posner is more specific than the Post article, writing: “A Republican appointee overrode the staff recommendation and granted approval, allowing the plan to go into effect for the 2004 Congressional elections. In so doing, the official sided with his political party and with one of the most powerful Republicans in Washington.” Posner notes that the Bush administration has defended the decision, claiming that it was merely the result of what he calls “an honest disagreement between the career and political staff about how to apply the law to a complex set of facts.” In spite of the defense, including a statement by the attorney general, Posner writes that “this is not a case of an honest disagreement between lawyers. Rather, there is strong objective evidence that politics prevailed over the requirements of the Voting Rights Act.” The civil rights division of the DOJ is required under the VRA to “pre-clear,” or approve, any redistricting plan that might result in the unwarranted dilution of minority voting strength in particular districts. Texas, as a state with a history of discriminating against its minority citizens, is one of a number of states required to obtain DOJ approval for new redistricting plans. The DOJ has examined some 435,000 election changes since 1965, Posner writes, and thusly must “follow procedures which… ensure that preclearance decisions are based on the law and the facts, and not on extraneous factors. Among other things, these procedures must guard against the temptation that some political appointees can have to decide matters based on what would benefit their political party.” The DOJ career staff play a key role in such procedures, though the assistant attorney general (AAG) for civil rights makes the final decision. Until the Texas redistricting plan, Posner writes, AAGs have generally relied on the opinions and findings of their staff to help them craft a final decision. “When the career staff unanimously recommends that preclearance be denied, the AAG almost never overrides that recommendation and approves the change. On the flip side, the staff’s unanimous preclearance recommendation always results in the change being approved.” But the Texas redistricting approval upended the usual procedure. Despite the unanimous recommendation from the staff that the DOJ block Texas from implementing the plan due to its discriminatory effect, the AAG granted approval to the plan. “The influence of politics is evident,” Posner concludes. The DOJ “significantly and substantially deviated from the decisional practice which, for nearly four decades, has served the department well in enforcing Section 5 in a fair and nonpartisan manner.… [T]he evidence points to a single conclusion: the Justice Department did not serve the interests of minority citizens in this case, but, instead, served the political interests of the Republican Party.” [FindLaw, 12/6/2005]

Entity Tags: Civil Rights Division (DOJ), Texas State Legislature, Voting Rights Act of 1965, Mark Posner

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

The Washington Post learns that the Justice Department has barred staff attorneys from offering recommendations in major Voting Rights Act (VRA—see August 6, 1965) cases, a drastic change from the earlier policy, which was designed to insulate such decision from political considerations. The decision comes amid what the Post calls “growing public criticism of Justice Department decisions to approve Republican-engineered plans in Texas (see December 12, 2003, December 2, 2005, and December 5, 2005) and Georgia (see 2005, November 25, 2005, and September 19, 2006) that were found to hurt minority voters by career staff attorneys who analyzed the plans. Political appointees overruled staff findings in both cases.” In the Georgia redistricting case, a staff memo advised rejecting the Georgia plan because it required voters to show photo ID at the polls, a policy that the memo said would disenfranchise some African-American voters. Under the new policy, that recommendation was removed from the memo and was not forwarded to higher officials in the civil rights division (CRD). The DOJ has claimed the August 25 memo was “an early draft,” even though the DOJ gave “preclearance” for the Georgia plan to be adopted on August 26. A federal judge blocked the law’s implementation, calling it a return to Jim Crow-era policies. The policy was adopted by John Tanner, the head of the CRD’s voting rights section (VRS). DOJ spokesperson Eric Holland says, “The opinions and expertise of the career lawyers are valued and respected and continue to be an integral part of the internal deliberation process upon which the department heavily relies when making litigation decisions.” Tanner has recently lambasted the quality of work by the VRS staff, some of whom have been in the section for decades. Some of the staff members boycotted the staff Christmas party because they were too angry to attend, sources within the section say. Experts like Jon Greenbaum, a VRS veteran who now directs the Voting Rights Project at the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, says that stopping staff members from making such recommendations is a significant departure and runs the risk of making the process appear more political. “It’s an attempt by the political hierarchy to insulate themselves from any accountability by essentially leaving it up to a chief, who’s there at their whim,” he says. “To me, it shows a fear of dealing with the legal issues in these cases.” Congressional Democrats are critical of the new policy and are joined by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter (R-PA), who is considering holding hearings on the Texas redistricting case. Senator Edward Kennedy (D-MA) says, “America deserves better than a civil rights division that puts the political agenda of those in power over the interests of the people its serves.” Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and other DOJ officials have disagreed with the criticism, and asserted that politics play no role in civil rights decisions. Assistant Attorney General William Moschella has recently written to Specter, criticizing the Post’s coverage and claiming that the department is aggressively enforcing a range of civil rights laws. “From fair housing opportunities, equal access to the ballot box, and criminal civil rights prosecutions to desegregation in America’s schools and protection of the rights of the disabled, the division continues its noble mission with vigor,” he wrote. [Washington Post, 12/10/2005]

Entity Tags: Edward M. (“Ted”) Kennedy, Alberto R. Gonzales, Civil Rights Division (DOJ), Washington Post, William E. Moschella, Jon Greenbaum, Eric W. Holland, US Department of Justice, Arlen Specter, John Tanner

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

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