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Keep the civil rights torch lit 50 years later

By Jack Schlossberg Special to CNN | 8/1/2013, 1:16 p.m.
The March on Washington forced the issue of civil rights onto the national agenda and into the lives of every American of every race.

Many legal scholars across the ideological spectrum have explained why this unprecedented decision violates long-settled constitutional principles under both the Enforcement Clause of the 14th Amendment and the long-established principle and practice, established in McCulloch v. Maryland. The "McCulloch test" requires the court to defer to Congress regarding which means are necessary to achieve legitimate ends, so long as those means do not cross established constitutional boundaries among the branches of government or between government and individuals.

I am not a legal scholar, but I argue that there is another, more basic and compelling reason rooted in legal precedent why the court was mistaken.

Precedent dictates that the Supreme Court should exercise extreme restraint in extraordinary situations known as "political questions." In Baker v. Carr, the court outlined the factors that identified the existence of purely "political questions." One of those factors is "the impossibility of a court's undertaking independent resolution without expressing lack of the respect due coordinate branches of government."

I do not claim that the constitutionality of the Voting Rights Act is literally a "political question" entirely beyond the purview of the federal courts; such questions, I understand, are truly few and far between. What I do argue, however, is that many of the same factors that instruct the court to exercise restraint regarding political questions are applicable here. Namely, the court had every reason to defer to congressional expertise and political accountability when hearing this case.

In Shelby County v. Holder, the court entered into the political arena, heedless of the need for caution and deference, and the resulting decision expressed a blatant lack of respect for the other branches of government and, by extension, for the American people.

The Voting Rights Act is a monument to the long struggle, over more than a century, for racial equality. The act became law because of the courage and devotion of those involved in the civil rights movement and our country, and our government has, since the act's original passage, understood its significance as something more meaningful than just one more act of Congress.

In fact, the act is extraordinary in that it has been consistently revisited and reaffirmed by both Democrats and Republicans since its passage almost 50 years ago.

Included in the 1965 law was a clause stating that unless Congress voted to extend the Voting Rights Act, it would expire after five years. In 1970, under President Nixon, Congress renewed the act for five more years. In 1975, under President Ford, Congress again renewed it for another seven years. In 1982, under President Reagan, Congress reauthorized it for 25 years, and in 2006, under President Bush, Congress did so again for another 25 years. Each of these presidents signed renewals of the act.

I will probably never be denied the right to vote. I am a white male with a valid form of identification living in a progressive state. In November, when I cast my first vote in a national election, I felt excited, proud and part of something larger than myself. I have trouble believing that I will be as excited and proud to participate in an election in which my peers won't have the same protection against voter discrimination as they did last fall.