Senators Warn Court Against 'Activism' on Voting Rights Law
By Robert Barnes
The Supreme Court hasn't even ruled in its examination of the constitutionality of a key provision of the Voting Rights Act, but key senators are already warning that a decision striking down the law will be seen as "conservative activism pure and simple."
That was the phrase used by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-VT.) in a speech to the law school at the University of the District of Columbia. Questions about Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor's impartiality ring hollow, he implied, based on the performance of Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justice Samuel A. Alito, the court's two newest members, both nominated by President George W. Bush.
"For all the talk about 'judicial modesty' and 'judicial restraint' from nominees at their confirmation hearings, we have seen a Supreme Court these last four years that has been anything but modest and restrained," said Leahy.
Leahy, like others who watched the April 29 oral arguments in the Voting Rights Act case, said the majority of the court seemed skeptical about Congress's overwhelming votes in 2006 to reauthorize the act and its provision that some states, mostly in the South, must receive advance approval from federal authorities for any change in their election laws and procedures. But Leahy said the finding that Congress had overstepped its authority would be a radical departure for the court.
"Since the initial court challenges in 1966, whenever the Supreme Court has reviewed or even cited to the Voting Rights Act, it has affirmed the Act as a valid exercise of congressional authority. The court should not depart from these precedents," Leahy said. "Striking down the Voting Rights Act would be conservative activism pure and simple."
Leahy is not the only senator with his back up. Newly turned Democrat Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania today released a letter he sent to Sotomayor that outlines questions he wants her to answer at her July hearings about "the adequacy of congressional fact finding to support legislation." But it is as much a complaint about Roberts and a court increasingly dismissive of some of Congress's conclusions.
Specter said that Roberts, at his 2005 confirmation proceedings, said that judges sometimes "transgress into the area of making a law" when they are "in a position of re-evaluating legislative findings, because that doesn't look like a judicial function." He added: "It's not our job. It is your job."
But Roberts during oral arguments in the Voting Rights Act case aggressively questioned whether Congress's prescriptions for protecting minority voting rights "are sweeping far more broadly than they need to."
Such statements, Specter wrote, "suggested a very different attitude on deference to congressional fact finding than he expressed as his confirmation hearing."
The court's decision in Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District Number One v. Holder is expected to be one of the last the court issues before finishing its work at the end of the month.
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