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Key Excerpt: Cardin and Sotomayor on Civil Rights

Courtesy of CQ Transcriptions

SEN. CARDIN: There are many protections in the Constitution, but I would like to talk a little bit about the civil rights and the -- the basic protections in our Constitution and how we've seen a progression from the Constitution, Bill of Rights to constitutional amendments, including the 13th, 14th, 15th and 19th, through congressional action, through the passage of such bills as the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, Supreme Court decisions that we've talked about that have changed civil rights in America, made it possible for many people to have the opportunities of this country that otherwise would have been denied.

And we made a lot of progress since the days of segregated schools and restrictions on people's opportunities to vote. But I think we would all do well to remember the advice given to us by our colleague, Senator Edward Kennedy, the former chairman of this committee, as he talks about the civil rights struggle, when he says, and I quote, "The work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives, and the dream shall never die."

So I say that as -- as introduction to one area of civil rights, and that is the right to vote, fundamental right. My own experience, in 2006 -- that's just a few years ago -- causes me to be -- have concerns. In my own election, I found that there were lines longer in the African-American precincts to vote than in other precincts. And it was curious as to why this took place. They didn't have as many voting machines; there was a lot of irregularities. And it caused a lot of people who had to get back to work to be denied their right to participate.

We also found on Election Day fraudulent sample ballots that were targeted to minority voters in an effort to diminish their importance in the election. I mention that because that happened not 50 years ago, but happened just a few years ago.

Congress renewed the Voting Rights Act by rather large votes, 93- 0 in the United States Senate, 390-33 in the House of Representatives. There's clear intent of Congress to continue to protect voters in this country.

In the Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District No. 1 v. Holder, one justice on the court in dictum challenged Congress's authority to extend this civil rights case. Now, I say that knowing your view about giving due deference to Congress, particularly as it relates to expanding and extending civil rights protections.

So my question to you is, tell me a little bit about your passion for protecting the right of vote, to make sure that the laws are enforced as Congress intended to guarantee to every American the right to participate at the voting place.

JUDGE SOTOMAYOR: When we speak about my passion, I don't think that the issue of guaranteeing each citizen the right to vote is unique to me or that it's different among any senator or among any group of people who are Americans. It is a fundamental right. And it is one that you've recognized, Congress has addressed for decades and has done an amazing job in passing a wide variety of statutes in an effort to protect that right.

The question that a court would face in any individual situation is whether an act of Congress conflicts with some right of either the state or an individual with respect to the issue of voting. There could be other challenges raised on a wide variety of different bases, but each case would present its own unique circumstance.

There is one case involving the Voting Rights Act where I address the issue of the right to vote. And in that case, I issued a dissent on an en banc ruling by my court. For the public who may not understand what en banc ruling means, when the whole court is considering an issue. In that case, if it wasn't 13, it may have been 12 members of the court, or a complement of 13 judges, but I right now can't remember if we were a full complement at the time of considering an issue.

The majority upheld a state regulation barring a group of people from voting. I dissented on a very short opinion, one paragraph opinion, saying, "These are the words of Congress in the statute it passed, and the words are that no state may impose a" -- and I'm paraphrasing it now. I'm not trying to read the statute, but no condition or restriction on voting that denies or abridges the right to vote on the basis of race.

I noted that, given the procedural posture of that case, that the plaintiff had alleged that that's exactly what the state was doing. And I said, "That's the allegation on the complaint." That's what a judge has to accept on the face of the complaint. We've got to give him a chance to prove that, and that to me was the end of the story.

To the extent that the majority believed that -- and there was a lot of discussion among the variety of different opinions in the case as to whether this individual could or could not prove his allegation, and there was a suggestion by both sides that he might never be able to do it -- my point was a legal one. These are Congress' words. We have to take them at their word.

And if there's an end result of this process that we don't like, then we have to leave that to Congress to address that issue. We can't fix it by ruling against what I viewed as the expressed words of Congress.

Read the entire exchange between Sen. Cardin and Judge Sotomayor here.

By Washington Post editors  |  July 15, 2009; 10:48 AM ET
Categories:  Hearings , Supreme Court , Topic: Civil Rights  
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