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Messaging Ramps Up Before Key Voting Rights Case

A steady drumbeat of press briefings and messaging events is reaching a crescendo as the Supreme Court prepares to hear arguments Wednesday in a case that questions whether a key provision of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 is still needed.

Briefing breakfasts, afternoon seminars, information sessions on the Hill and a coordinated bus campaign that mimics the Freedom Rides of the 1960s all focus on influencing the outcome of Shelby County v. Holder.

“While the justices play a distinct role in our society and in our country, they’re not divorced from society at large. I can’t see how they couldn’t be influenced by what people think about their actions,” said Ellen Buchman, vice president of field operations for the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, which is planning a rally during Wednesday’s oral arguments.

The case will focus on a provision of the Voting Rights Act that requires areas with a history of discrimination to “preclear” any changes to their voting procedures with the Justice Department. The legal team representing Shelby County, Ala., will argue that the requirement is outdated and unnecessarily burdensome. The Justice Department and civil rights attorneys will say it is still a powerful, and needed, tool to address entrenched voting discrimination.

The outcome will be influenced by the steps Congress took when it last reauthorized the provision in 2006 for another 25 years. The renewal passed the House 390-33 and the Senate 98-0. Some of the justices have indicated in previous rulings that Congress should examine adjusting the methodology that is used to determine which geographic areas are covered by the statute. The current formula uses decades-old election data.

What’s at stake in the case has not been lost on interest groups on the political left and right. The messaging, in fact, rivals some of the activity seen before last year’s Supreme Court arguments on the constitutionality of the 2010 health care law.

On Feb. 22, for example, there were at least two Shelby County events hosted by ideologically opposite groups in different parts of Washington.

NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund President and General Counsel Sherrilyn Ifill told a breakfast meeting that Congress “really did its job” when it passed and reauthorized the preclearance provision. Special Counsel Debo Adegbile, who will be helping the government defend the statute before the court, said the preclearance portion of the law continues to be the only remedy for areas that have shown “repetitive efforts to discriminate against minority voters.”

Just hours later, The Heritage Foundation held a briefing on the “(Un)Constitutionality of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act” hosted by conservative legal scholar Hans von Spakovsky. Alabama’s Solicitor General John Neiman, Center for Equal Opportunity President Roger Clegg, Todd Gaziano of The Heritage Foundation and Jones Day Partner Michael Carvin were the panelists. White voters are “wide open to electing black Democrats … as much as white Democrats,” Carvin told the audience.

The messaging has also reached the Hill. Democratic chiefs of staff, legislative directors and legislative assistants attended a briefing on the case last week that was hosted by House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer, D-Md., and Democratic members of the House Judiciary Committee. More than 80 staffers showed up to hear presentations made by the American Civil Liberties Union, the American Constitution Society, the Brennan Center for Justice and the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights.

The Congressional Black Caucus plans to keep the issue in the limelight by holding a special “order hour” Monday evening on the House floor to address voting issues, including the Shelby County case. Caucus members are also hosting a news conference on the Supreme Court steps Wednesday morning in conjunction with the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus. Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., is expected to be in attendance.

The crowd will likely be large. The Leadership Conference’s rally, which was planned on behalf of more than 50 organizations — including the Conference of National Black Churches, Planned Parenthood, the NAACP, Rock the Vote and the United Auto Workers — will begin as soon as the news conference ends.

Buchman said rally organizers have received requests for logistical support from groups arriving from Chicago, Detroit, Pennsylvania and a college in Brooklyn. There will be speakers and entertainment as the justices hear the case, and she expects the crowd to remain well into the afternoon.

A group called Bridge Crossing Jubilee has been recruiting “freedom riders” on a special website that it reserved for the effort.

After lunch, the buses will depart for Richmond, Va., for another rally and then continue on a route through the South that includes stops at federal courthouses in Charlotte, N.C.; Greenville, S.C.; Atlanta; and in the Alabama cities of Birmingham, Montgomery and Selma.

“The primary goal is to simply reinforce to the court and to the nation that we all believe … that the Voting Rights Act is relevant and it protects real voters from discrimination,” Buchman said.

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