A suggestion by Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia that a key 1960s-era voting rights law aimed at ending Jim Crow-era voter discrimination against blacks perpetuates “racial entitlement” has drawn outrage from civil rights leaders and others.
During oral arguments at the high court Wednesday in a case seeking to end the federal government’s control over voting decisions in areas of the country with a history of discrimination, Justice Scalia suggested Congress only reauthorized the law in 2006 out of fear of being labeled racist if lawmakers opposed it.
“I don’t think (Congress’ renewal of the law is) attributable to the fact that it is so much clearer now that we need this. I think it is attributable, very likely attributable, to a phenomenon that is called perpetuation of racial entitlement,” he said.
“Whenever a society adopts racial entitlements, it is very difficult to get out of them through the normal political processes.”
Rep. John Lewis, Georgia Democrat and a veteran of the 1960s civil rights movement, characterized the justice’s comment’s as offensive.
“It was unreal, unbelievable, almost shocking, for a member of the court to use certain language,” Mr Lewis told MSNBC Wednesday. “It is an affront to all of what the civil rights movement stood for, what people died for, what people bled for, and those of us who marched across that bridge 48 years ago, we didn’t march for some racial entitlement.”
Mr. Lewis took part in a March 7, 1965, march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., to protest Jim Crow-era discrimination against blacks. State troopers severely beat many of the marchers, including Mr. Lewis, in an event known as Bloody Sunday.
NAACP President and Chief Executive Benjamin Todd Jealous called Justice Scalia’s comments an assault on the country’s principles.
“Democracy is an American entitlement. Voting rights protection is an American entitlement. Guaranteed access to the ballot box is not the right of one race, one age group, or one economic class,” said Mr. Jealous in a prepared statement. “Assaulting the Voting Rights Act, on the other hand, is an assault on America’s ability to be America for all Americans.”
“Justice Scalia should refrain from speculating on the thoughts and motivations of the Congress and defer to the judgment of the overwhelming bipartisan majority that voted for reauthorization in 2006.”
The Supreme Court is considering a challenge from Shelby County, Ala., to a provision in the 1965 Voting Rights Act that requires all or parts of 16 states with a history of discrimination in voting to get federal approval before making any changes in the way they hold elections.
If successful, the challenge would strike down a major legislative tenant of President Lyndon Johnson’s civil rights legacy — though it’s one critics argue is outdated and unnecessary. The high court is expected to announce its decision in June.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor, later in the oral argument, seemed to fire back at Justice Scalia, asking the attorney representing Shelby County if he considered the right to vote a racial entitlement.
“No,” answered Bert Rein.
• Sean Lengell can be reached at email@example.com.
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