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Profile: Ellen Katz
Ellen Katz was a participant or observer in the following events:
In an 8-1 decision, the US Supreme Court refuses to rule against one of the main components of the 1965 Voting Rights Act (VRA—see August 6, 1965 and June 29, 1989). Many conservatives had seen the case as an opportunity for the Court conservatives to either drastically narrow or entirely gut the VRA, and were hopeful of that outcome in light of a recent Court decision narrowing the VRA’s effect on districting (see March 9, 2009). Instead, the Court chooses not to rule on the central tenet of the case of Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District No. 1 v. Holder, which is that the VRA is largely unconstitutional. The case was brought by a Texas utility district that claimed in arguments that the VRA was unconstitutional and unnecessary in a time when the nation has elected a black president. The plaintiff argued that districts and other governmental entities should be allowed to “bail out” from being covered by the VRA. [New York Times, 6/22/2009; New York Times, 6/22/2009] Many observers were concerned that the conservative wing of the Court would use the case to overturn large portions of the VRA, especially in earlier questioning, when Justice Anthony Kennedy said: “Congress has made a finding that the sovereignty of Georgia is less than the sovereign dignity of Ohio. The sovereignty of Alabama is less than the sovereign dignity of Michigan. And the governments in one are to be trusted less than the governments in the other.… No one questions the validity, the urgency, the essentiality of the Voting Rights Act. The question is whether or not it should be continued with this differentiation between the states. And that is for Congress to show.” [New York Times, 4/29/2009] Chief Justice John Roberts, writing the majority opinion, says that the Court should avoid tackling large constitutional questions when it can. “We are now a very different nation” than the one that first passed the Voting Rights Act, he writes. “Whether conditions continue to justify such legislation is a difficult constitutional question we do not answer today.” Roberts’s opinion says that “a broader reading” of the VRA’s bailout provision should be implemented. Moreover, he writes, the federal oversight of states and areas with a history of discrimination may have served its purpose and may need to be phased out, a position supported by the lone dissenter, Justice Clarence Thomas, who writes that the oversight provision of Section 5 of the VRA should be overturned entirely. It is possible that others will take advantage of the Court’s hesitation to file other “opt out” or “bailout” challenges to the VRA. Some legal experts found the basis of the case to be lacking. Ellen Katz, a law professor at the University of Michigan, calls the Court’s ruling “improbable,” and Richard Hasen of Loyola Law School says “virtually no lawyer” sees the Court’s interpretation as reasonable. NAACP lawyer Debo P. Adegbile says that regardless of questions surrounding the Court’s verdict, the ruling is one to celebrate: “This case was brought to tear the heart out of the Voting Rights Act, and today that effort failed.” [New York Times, 6/22/2009]
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