Tuesday, March 30, 2021

John Roberts Playing the Long Game to Take Away Rights

None of the voter suppression laws being drafted and sometimes passed would be possible if the U.S. Supreme Court hadn't gutted the Voting Rights Act in 2013. That decision, I think, was the culmination of Chief Justice John Roberts' career. He had been working toward it his entire career.

Ari Berman's book, Give Us the Ballot, is a must-read on voting rights, and gives the story of how Roberts came up through the legal side of voter suppression. Back in 2016, I wrote this about what Berman had to say about Roberts:

The year 1980 is familiar for another reason: it saw the election of Ronald Reagan to the presidency. Berman’s book gave me another set of reasons to mourn the Reagan years. Reagan had called the VRA “vindictive,” and thought it was intended to humiliate the South. He installed political appointees in the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department, intent on undermining voting rights in pursuit of a “color-blind” vision of society. William Bradford Reynolds and John Roberts (that name is familiar, I trust) were key in the Reagan Department of Justice Civil Rights Division. Reynolds was fond of calling the VRA a “racial spoils system” favoring minorities over whites, rhetoric that continues to echo today. Reagan’s efforts culminated in the elevation of William Rehnquist to be chief justice of the Supreme Court, the appointment of Antonin Scalia to fill his associate position, and the stacking of federal courts around the nation with judges who were 94 percent white, 95 percent male, and 95 percent Republican (page 180). [Doesn't that sound like Trump's judge appointments?]

The George W. Bush years did even more damage under Attorney General John Ashcroft. He and his top-level staff began clearing out the DOJ civil servant lawyers who had survived the Reagan years and were the mainstays of the Civil Rights Division. Berman actually uses the word “corruption” to describe how things were run during the Bush years (page 229). All in all, voter ID laws enacted during the Bush administration were estimated to have “reduced Hispanic turnout by 10 percent and black and Asian-American turnout by 6 percent in 2004” (page 233).

The chapter on the partial destruction of the VRA in the 2013 Shelby County v. Holder decision [written by Roberts] was also informative. Three new names are important here, and if you haven’t heard much about them before, I suggest you read up on them: Hans von Spakovsky, Abigail Thernstrom, and Edward Blum. Shelby County was finally the chance John Roberts had been waiting for to insert his end-of-history, color-blind world view into our election laws, and he didn’t waste any time.

Since the Shelby decision, voting rights have been undermined in new-fangled ways, like more stringent voter ID laws and curtailed early voting hours, which recent court decisions have found to be surgically targeted at black voters. There is just about zero evidence of in-person voter fraud, as I've noted before, yet requiring voter ID at the polls is the favored tactic of the Right to ensure the integrity of our elections, even though absentee ballots (which are more popular with white voters) can be done without an ID. Hmm. 

And here we are now, with Republicans trying to also restrict absentee ballots because Democrats used them a lot in 2020 during the pandemic. Strange how that is. Must be a coincidence.

Roberts' Shelby decision was based on the premise that the VRA was no longer needed, and now we can clearly see that his belief was wrong. As if that wasn't obvious at the time, and had been contradicted by a super-majority of Congress the last time the act was renewed. 

If any of these current Republican laws reach the Court, we'll see if they're too much even for Roberts. I hope the voting rights bills currently in Congress make this a moot question.

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